Lee Miller: Surrealist, War Photojournalist, Model, Cook and Mother.
It was a perfect spring afternoon when I met Antony Penrose (son of Lee Miller) at Farley’s House in Sussex. A luscious farmhouse surrounded by greenery and pastures and just such an idyllic setting. I could have easily closed my eyes and picture myself hobnobbing with artists, thinkers, and writers during those ever-lasting evenings. We started drinking tea and settling in the very same kitchen, where Lee would cook green chicken, blue spaghetti and purple cauliflowers.
When asked if she was a feminist, my mother would reply, “I’m a surrealist,” said Antony Penrose during our interview.
I like her already! Lee Miller would never have call herself a Feminist. Anthony explained to me that labelling herself a “surrealist” was exactly what she wanted, because it avoids a definition and allows one to remain fluid and in charge of one's own self.
You grew up with both parents being Artists - how was that?
We are not very analytical or critical about when we grow up. We are not objective about our childhood and it is what it is. I was very fortunate to be brought up with people that were incredibly inclusive. I remember what a shock it was, when I discovered how people in the world were so sexist and racist. I grew up with family friends being openly gay, living among us and being our friends, and it was not considered something to be remarked on - it was perfectly natural. It was normal. If I asked my parents a straight question about art, they would never give me a straight answer. But then, they would often conclude by asking me to go and find out the answer by myself. It’s not the answers you get, it is the questions you ask that are important.
What is Lee’s background and how did she become connected with Surrealism?
Surrealism was way more than an art movement - it was a way of life. The art reflected the life rather than the other way around. Lee learned to be so determined to run her own life, in her own way, as a consequence of a very sexually traumatic event that happened when she was seven years old. Lee was raped and infected with gonorrhoea. Growing up with the family keeping this misfortune a secret was incredibly difficult, but back then there would have been a great deal of blaming of the victim, even at the age of seven. She carried that secret to her grave. It made her angry at the social repression of America, which was even more post-Victorian than the United Kingdom, with its uptight, status-conscious society. She traveled to Europe in 1925, staying in Paris to study art. When she arrived in Paris, she found it so liberal. Stepping out of the boat, she muttered to herself “Baby, I am home”. She had such a wonderful time. Lee's time in Europe was brief, because her father called her back to New York. Upon her return, she enrolled in the Art Students League of New York in New York City. In 1928, she returned to Paris and met Man Ray (an American visual artist who spent most of his career in Paris and was a significant contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements). Her time in New York made her an incredibly successful super model, so she was back in Paris on her own terms. She become his new student, and of course, they became lovers too. Their relationship was fascinating. He was constantly trying to dominate and repress her and force her to behave like a subjective woman. Lee was not going to have it. It did not matter to her what it cost her, in terms of lost opportunities. She wanted to be Lee Miller and have her own destiny. And she worked hard at it. She went back to the US and started her own studio, right at the face of the Depression. Everybody was out of work and opportunities for photographers were very limited. She blended her French-chic taste with the American photography taste, and created some incredible, unique work.
How did she become a photojournalist during World War II?
Principally, the things she is best known for are her writing and her photography. We see what she really wanted to do, when she started working in England during the war. As an American, she could have hopped on a liner gone back to New York, but she felt too connected to the Surrealists in Europe and Britain. And she was not going to rat out on them. She hated the Nazis already and had seen the results of Jewish persecution in Paris. She was politically very savvy. She had seen political repression in Egypt, where she lived. She stayed in England with Roland Penrose, and she stayed because she felt so loyal to the people she loved the most. She had an intense capacity for loving and she an equal intense capacity for hating. And she hated the Nazis, hated them with a vengeance that was consuming. Her frustration was that no one was going to give her a gun or a plane to fly - so her weapon of choice became her camera.
Then she began taking fashion and surrealist photos in London, and this is where the weaponisation of her camera started to become effective. Those pictures found their way into a British publication called “Grim Glory” which was about the bashing that Britain was taking during the Blitz. It was sold in America and some of her pictures found their way into the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That is where she began to feel the reality and the effectiveness of being a photojournalist. Her images could be seen by people who did not really care too much about the war. It was not confrontational - it was more clever than that. She found a way of using her surrealist eye to make an effective statement. Her greatest fortune throughout the entire war was her Editor, called Audrey Withers. She and Lee worked together so effectively, because Audrey made sure that Lee would get the “right” assignments. Audrey knew that Lee was very competent in photographing fashion, but knew that it would bore her, so she encouraged Lee to go and photograph assignments that interested her. They made this incredible duo.
At the outbreak of World War II, Lee was living in London with my father and she embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. She was accredited to the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Condé Nast Publications from December 1942. She teamed up with the American photographer, David E. Scherman, (Scherman was a reporter for Life magazine). She traveled to France soon after D-Day and recorded one of the first uses of napalm at the siege of St. Malo, as well as the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Alsace, and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps
Tell me about when Lee witnessed the Normandy Landings…
Audrey encouraged Lee to go to Normandy. The British Army would not have female war correspondents, but the American Army did. Lee was, to the best of our knowledge, the only woman who photographed combat with the ground forces. Lee was there with the GI’s on the ground and enduring the same hardships they were suffering. She was under fire for thirty days. Unlike many other photographers, she didn't have to stay with a particular unit, although she did become best buddies with the guys in the 83rd [the famous subject of the TV series Band of Brothers]. They were her pet division, if you like. And they were the guys that took Hitler’s house in Ober,salzburg. Most of the journalists went to Berlin, because they knew where they could witness Hitler’s last moments, but Lee and Sherman made a different call, and subsequently they were the very first people in Hitler’s house in Munich after it was seized and took these incredible photos.
When did she start having the friendship with Pablo Picasso?
We think that she met him during her time spent with Man Ray. In 1937 they went on this amazing Surrealist summer holiday in the south of France. That was when Picasso painted Lee’s portrait six times, and then she began photographing him and built up more than a thousand photographs. From that moment on, they had this amazing rapport. When Roland (my father) started writing his biographies, he always said that his interviews with Picasso went so much better when Lee was around, because she made him happy. They were feeding each other in a very synergistic way.
So, why and how did Lee turn to cooking?
She was severely traumatised by what she had seen in the war, but she was also restless for change. She became pregnant with British artist and curator Roland Penrose’s child, quickly divorced her Egyptian husband (she had lived in Cairo for six years in the 30s), and gradually settled into a life split between London and a farmhouse in Sussex.
After the war, Lee suffered from PTSD as well as post-natal depression, so she started drinking. The first years of my life were when she was deeply affected by alcohol abuse and depression, which of course, as a child, I had no understanding. My greatest admiration for Lee comes from overcoming that alcoholism and depression, and she did it unaided. She had mortal fear of psychologists, so she did it just by sheer tenacity and reinvented herself as a cook. Surrealism hit the kitchen! As I kid, I would ask for poached eggs and baked beans, and instead we would get green chicken and blue spaghetti and tomato cake and stuff like that. Sometimes wonderful and bizarre, but it gave her a focus. It gave her something which pleased her friends, satisfied her scientific and creative instincts, and saved her life, because she suddenly became very well known for being this “weird cook”. She was written up in glossy magazines like Vogue and House and Gardens and stuff like that, and it gave her huge enjoyment in the last ten years of her life.
She did live like a surrealist after all…
Art was inside her. When the war was won, there was this savage disillusionment inside her as well, because the Brave New world did not arrive. People were dying of starvation and still were leading miserable lives. She wanted things to be right for everyone and when the war failed to deliver that, she had this terrible disillusionment, which led her to plunge into depression and alcoholism. She visited Austria, Hungary and other parts of Europe and witnessed terrible sufferings.
What words of advice do you think Lee would give to women today, embarking in the world of Art…
I think she would be very encouraged by the levelling of the opportunities. I think she would be one of the first people to say, “Yeah this is good, but you still have a long way to go”. She would be saying to people like you…
“Great, well done! You got this far and whatever you do, don’t stop”.
Front cover photo: Antony Penrose. Photo by Nic Roques.