‘Picasso nearly fell over backwards when he saw her’ – Lee Miller’s son on their intense relationship – The Guardian
She was a model-turned-photographer whose unflinching eye captured the horror of the Nazis. But for too long, this extraordinary woman was defined as ‘Picasso’s muse’. As a new show puts this right, her son looks back
There’s a picture of the US photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller with Pablo Picasso, taken by her after the liberation of Paris in 1944. They are gazing into one another’s eyes with such intimacy that you feel you’re intruding on something deeply personal. Not romantic, exactly – although the way his hand grazes the back of her neck is certainly intimate – but profoundly loving, perhaps. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the image has been chosen to promote a new exhibition centred on Miller’s extraordinary life and the relationship between these two artists, which opens this week at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, West Sussex.
It captured, her son Antony Penrose tells me, an extraordinary moment after years of hardship and separation. “Lee found her way to Picasso’s studio in Rue des Grands-Augustins, hammered on the door. He opened it and nearly fell over backwards. And he hugged her and he kissed her and he hugged her, and then finally, when he stood back, he looked at her and he said, ‘It’s incredible. The first allied soldier I should see is a woman. She is you.’”
Miller and Picasso met properly in 1937, on a beach holiday in the south of France, although they may have crossed paths earlier that decade when she was working with Man Ray and discovering the process of solarisation for which he, not she, would end up being credited. A deep friendship ensued between their two families: Miller was married to the British artist, poet and historian Roland Penrose, Picasso was with Dora Maar, then Françoise Gilot, and they would holiday together, often at the Spaniard’s various houses. Antony, who was born in 1947, remembers lots of children and animals: Picasso allowed a goat called Esmerelda to sleep outside his room and he would call out to her, because she was afraid of the dark. There would be long lunches, featuring the sort of exotic foods that were a rarity in postwar Britain, and practical jokes too. Miller enjoyed placing trick ice cubes containing frozen flies in drinks.
Penrose recalls being asked in school what he had done during the holidays, and astonishing his classmates with his response. “I said quite casually, ‘Oh, we were visiting Picasso.’ I had no idea that this was an exceptional thing to be doing, because it was approached by my parents with such incredible modesty. They never said, ‘Look, this guy is the greatest living modern artist in the world.’ He was just a person that they treated with a great deal of respect and reverence.”
Picasso respected Miller as an artist, says Penrose, long before anyone else did. “Of course, she was very beautiful. But the fact that she was highly intelligent, and knew how to do things, was significant to him. He knew she was a good photographer. He knew his way around photographers because he’d been with Dora Maar for six years.”
Miller’s beauty and background as a fashion model led to her own considerable talents being overlooked, a situation not helped by the fact that Picasso painted her six times and there has long been a preoccupation with his “muses”. This became a problem when Penrose started trying to put together exhibitions of his mother’s work. “To begin with, when I was approaching people who should have known better, I would have to explain that Lee Miller was a woman. Then they would get it and say, ‘Oh yes, she was Man Ray’s muse.’ And then I would have to disabuse them of that notion.”
Things began to change in the 1980s, though, when feminists started reexamining the lives of female artists, particularly surrealists. As has been the case with other models turned artists, Miller’s job made her curious about image-making. “When she was younger,” says Penrose, “she was photographed by the key photographers of the time: Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, people like that. Talking to some of them later in life, they said it was like she regarded it as a tutorial. She would be constantly asking questions.”
This meant that when Miller’s career as a fashion model abruptly ended – she was blacklisted after modelling for Kotex, there being stigma surrounding period products – she was able to skip from New York to Paris and reinvent herself as a photographer and later a war correspondent for Vogue, documenting first the blitz, followed by the liberation of Europe. The image of her in Hitler’s bathtub, taken by fellow photographer David E Scherman as the Fuhrer’s death was announced, shows her defiance: she used to make fun of how tacky his apartment was, Penrose says. The boots in front of the bath are still coated in mud from the death camps.
Miller’s 1945 images of the liberation of Dachau – some of which appear in the exhibition – are, Penrose explains, exercises in controlled fury. As a child of seven, Miller was raped. It was this, as well as seeing the boy she was in love with die in an accident when they were teenagers, that shaped not only her worldview but also her work. Trauma, says Penrose, often generates a sense of disconnection. “If we look at Lee through that prism, we see she was able to emotionally distance herself to a point. So we get her staring into the faces of dead people in concentration camps, and photographing them close up. When I interviewed Scherman, I said, ‘How does she do it? How does she stand there and take these pictures?’ And he said she was in an ice-cold rage.”
Her wartime experiences compounded what Penrose believes was PTSD. He says Miller wasn’t much of a mother. Prone to alcohol abuse, as many traumatised people are, she could fly into rages, and there was a distance between them. Miller had seen babies dying in hospital in Vienna for want of drugs that were being sold on the black market – and held her son at arm’s length, despite worrying a lot about his safety.
I get the sense it must have hurt profoundly, especially as Miller could be so warm towards others. Yet Penrose is magnanimous, having dedicated much of his life to establishing her legacy as an artist and acting as director of the Lee Miller Archives and Penrose Collection, at his parents’ former home, Farley House in Sussex, where Picasso stayed on his second visit to the UK in 1950. They also hosted, over the years, Man Ray, Miró, Max Ernst, Eileen Agar, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. There’s a gorgeous photo in the show of young Penrose sitting on Picasso’s knee, a look of cheerful complicity between them. It was on this visit that Picasso took a shine to the couple’s Ayrshire bull, William, inspiring the 1950 print Grasshopper Bulls, never before displayed in the UK.
“I know there have been implications that there was a sexual aspect to the relationship he had with her,” says Maya Binkin, artistic director at Newlands House. “But I just don’t think that matters. He hugely respected her, enjoyed her company and valued her friendship.” When I ask how she feels about female artists being continually viewed in terms of their relationship to men, she is frank about using Miller’s friendship with Picasso as a way of bringing new audiences to her work – but also says that you can hardly separate the two. Miller took almost 1,000 photographs of the artist over 40 years.
“Their relationship was extraordinary,” adds Binkin. “She captures some wonderful images of Picasso at work and at play, but also at home and at leisure, which in his later years was harder because he was very, very aware of the camera. He knew the importance of having his photograph taken. She has access to Picasso at moments when he isn’t playing to the camera.”
The #MeToo movement, Binkin notes, has not been kind to Picasso. “I personally don’t think we can judge him as harshly as he has been by some,” she says. Penrose agrees. Although he sees the feminist criticism as justified in its way, he points out that Picasso the man was a complex character. “Of course, there were times when perhaps he did not treat women well. But I don’t think it’s right that we should be in judgment at this point. It’s very easy to trip off all the bad things he did, and to forget that he had this incredible humanity and kindness. It’s very convenient for some people to forget that because they feel it weakens their case of making him into a monster.” As for his mother, he adds: “It was a deep love. He always said things were so much better when Lee was there. He seemed to have a particular affection for her. And he would be more mellow when she was around.”
Miller would later call herself, perhaps sardonically, a “Picasso widow”. She had had to fight all her life to carve out a space for herself. “To begin with in Paris,” says Penrose, “she was very happy to allow her photographs to be published under Man Ray’s name. She said, ‘We were so close, it was as if we were the same person, so it didn’t matter.’ Then it began to matter.” But when it came to Picasso, Miller was anything but embittered, and her work now speaks for itself. Getting to this place, says Penrose, “was uphill all the way. But we won in the end.”
Lee Miller and Picasso is at Newlands House Gallery, Petworth, West Sussex, 10 September to 8 January.