Inspiration Friday: Man Ray and Lee Miller ~ Partners in Surrealism


On a foggy San Francisco afternoon I drove across the Goldengate Bridge and made a sharp right turn and wound my way along the coast through stately Seacliff and up the hill past Lands End to the stunning Palladian Legion of Honor. The show I was anticipating to see was of the Surreal artists Man Ray and Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism. Who originally came together as Teacher and Student and later as lovers. Historically, Miller has been described as Ray’s muse, however, as I saw at the show, their mercurial love affair from 1929 – 1932 was in fact a key source of mutual and sustained inspiration, resulting in some of the most powerful work of each of the artists career.

I feel surrealism is important to us now in 2012 because of the redundancy and lack of self expression in the sameness of mass produced imported goods, consumers are craving one of a kind products with soul. The Surrealists stripped, repurposed, recombined and relocated even the most mundane to create surprise and delight, often the simply title there work objet or object. Much like what is occurring now in home furnishing with upcycling and reimagining of simple wooden crates, utilitarian luggage and shipping pallets into furniture and home accessories.


Lee Miller began her career as a model in New York, famously discovered when Conde Nast rescued her from being run over. Rocketing to success, appearing at age nineteen, on the March 15 1927 cover of US Vogue. She became the darling muse to many a photographers eye.


Sitting for Russian photographer George Hoyningen-Huene in Paris 1932.

After tiring of modeling in New York, it was suggested to Miller that she might try photography herself, the stage was set for her to launch into Man Rays studio.

Bored during a trip to Italy to study painting, she hopped a train to Paris, traveled to Rays studio and knocked on the door uninvited. She was told Ray had gone on holiday. Disappointed she wondered to the bar next door to soothe her sorrows, when Ray was spotted coming up the stairs by the bartender, he introduced himself and declared “I don’t have students”. He said he was leaving for Biarritz the next day, and she said, So I am I !


Miller photographed by Ray in her Paris apartment.  Both Man Ray and Lee Miller were artists of enormous originality and skill. Ray was not often driven to explore the inner character of his portrait subjects, Miller, by comparison, consistently made pictures with psychological charge.


Solarization is a technique that happens when a negative or print is briefly exposed to light during development. The technique can give a pleasing other worldly quality as subjects are rendered in sooty outline. Such as in this 1930 Portrait of Miller by Ray.

This is Millers 1930 Solarized Portrait of a unknown model. Solarization, the technique became one of the hallmarks of their collaboration, and both Ray and Miller continued to use it after their separation. Man Ray and Miller often worked together on photographs.  Considering the closeness with which they worked on these projects it is difficult to tell where Ray’s contribution ended and Millers began.


May Ray, Gelatin silver print Titled: Neck, Circa 1930. Miller over time grow tired of being seen as simply a muse, and ached to break free of the confines of Ray’s Studio and develop herself fully as an artist in her own right. In 1932 Lee left Paris, constantly under siege from men who wanted to assert ownership over her, she returned to New York to establish her own studio. As they lived out their lives, heading in dramatically different directions with separate friends and family, there was a part of their lives that was always shared.


This work by Ray The Artist’s Home 1932. Depicts Ray’s love obsession with Miller, her influence on his life continued in his work long after they had split.


A heart broken Ray used this cut out photo of Millers eye in a artwork called Object of Destruction.  “with the eye always in reserve/ Material indestructible…../ Forever being put away/ Taken for a ride…./ Put on the spot../The racket must go on.. I am always in reserve. The words make clear that Ray perceived himself as a victim of the couples separation, and held out hope that they would one day reunite. This work embodied his memories of Miller which could not be shattered.

One of Man Rays most famous works Observatory Time – The Lovers, 1964 after a canvas originally painted in 1931. Depict Millers lips and resembles two lovers lying side by side with storm clouds forming in the upper left corner,  the painting foretells the story of their relationship. Despite their tumultuous relationship in the end they became life long friends and remained so until Rays passing in 1976, his fondness for Miller never dwindled.

The show told a deeper human story how we might perhaps meet someone for a brief period of our long lives and how that connection has the possibility to change us forever and forge us into finer human beings.

If your are interested in see the show, Partners in Surrealism it continues until October 14th at The Legion Of Honor in San Francisco.

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