By Jared Bowen
Oct. 25, 2011
PEABODY, Mass. — On view at the Peabody Essex Museum right now are scenes from an affair both torrid and tempestuous. When artist Man Ray met model Lee Miller, they fell madly in love and produced some of the twentieth century's most celebrated works.
"She appeared on the cover of Vogue, she became Edward Steichen's favorite model. And then a curious thing happened. Her image was licensed to the Kotex company for feminine hygiene products. And as a result, all of her modeling work dried up and she had to find other things to do," said Phillip Prodger, curator at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Man Ray was a surrealist artist — a legend already in the making and 17 years her senior. Looking to be an artist in her own right, Miller tracked Man Ray down in Paris — finding him at a bar near his studio.
Prodger describes the moment Man Ray and Miller met. "Man Ray says there are two problems. 'The first problem is I don't take assistants. And the second problem is I'm going on vacation and I won't be back for two weeks.' She says, 'I'm going with you.'"
And she did. It was 1929 and as documented in "Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism" now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, the two spent the next three years together. She was his apprentice then a peer and always his lover. They pushed each other personally and professionally, establishing singular styles.
"Man Ray was primarily interested in photographing in the studio and he was a very theatrical artist in a way," Prodger said. "He liked to set things up... you see Man Ray making surrealist compositions in the studio, you see Lee Miller going out on the street and photographing things that she sees. And in fact she was one of the first photographers to do that."
In this exhibit, you will find their disparate take on nudes as well. He finds a softness and rapture in her.
Prodger described Man Ray's rendering of Miller: "It's very warm, very inviting, she looks sensual, beautiful and erotic."
Prodger said that Miller found nothing erotic in herself. "She looks strong, you can see muscle definition, her back is held upright, she really looks like a feminist hero."
Aside from perspective, their personalities collided too. Theirs was an aggressive relationship fraught with jealousy and conflict. Like the time Miller fished one of Ray's photographs out of the trash and claimed it as her own. Man Ray exploded.
"He took that photograph that she had printed which showed her neck, took a razor blade and sliced the photograph across the neck and then took scarlet paint and painted where the so-called wound would be in that photograph and it was dripping down as if he had slit her throat," Prodger said.
Among the most famous of Man Ray's manifestations of rage — his metronome.
"He attached her eye to the pendulum of a metronome and gave instructions that it should be set in motion going back and forth, back and forth, until the viewer couldn't stand it any more and then smashed with a hammer," Prodger said.
And when she left him, Man Ray got over her in part by creating his painting of levitating lips. They are Miller's and he tended to it every day for two years. Lovers for just a spell, Man Ray and Lee Miller remained intertwined for their lifetimes. Their work though, evokes for eternity.
MORE GREATER BOSTON