Peabody Essex Museum’s current show, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, is part art exhibit and part psychological portrait of a relationship between two artists. While they were only together as a couple (in a very loosely defined sense) for a few years—from 1929 to 1932—the ramifications of that connection influence both of their work going forward.
The circumstances are a familiar trope: Beautiful young American model moves to Paris and wants to become a photographer. American expat artist, 17 years her senior, first her teacher and then her primary lover. Miller is talented and serious, but she is also distractingly gorgeous—one quote in the show describes how Paris high society argued who was more the beauty, Lee Miller or Greta Garbo—so we are not surprised to discover a relationship between the two that is stormy and difficult. It initially ends badly but the connection between them is strong. They do have a reconciliation a few years later and settle into a friendship that seems to have lasted for the rest of their lives.
But there is a strong smell of obsession in this show. Letters written by Ray to Miller during their few years together portray Miller as his muse, lover, acolyte, student, adversary, collaborator and agent provocateur. He is consumed by her, controlling and domineering. (How gender skewed this kind of obsessive love can be. Had a woman had written those letters we would view her unbalanced, over emotional and self-destructive.) While there are no revelatory letters from Miller included in the show, the curatorial drift suggests that Ray’s fixation on Miller is ongoing and impacts his work for years to come. Pages from Ray’s journals where he has obsessively written Elizabeth (Lee’s real name) over and over are blown up and included in the show. Miller went on to marry artist Roland Penrose, achieving attention and kudos for her photography during World War II, a project that left her severely depressed after the war. In the view of their relationship presented here, Miller lives on as a force in Ray’s work more than the other way around.
Certainly Miller’s presence can be traced in later signatory Man Ray works such as the lips (AKA Observatory Time, The Lovers, 1936) and his famous eyeball metronome (Indestructible Object, 1933 then again in 1965.)
The description of the Indestructible Object in the Tate catalog captures this well:
Man Ray made the first version of this object shortly after his companion, the American photographer and model Lee Miller, left him. Attaching a photograph of Miller’s eye to the metronome, he linked his memory of her to the idea of an insistent beat or pulse that was both irksome and unending – a metaphor, perhaps, for human desire. He smashed the original, which he had titled Object to be Destroyed. This later version, produced in an edition of 100, was called Indestructible Object because, he suggested, ’it would be very difficult to destroy all hundred.’
On the back of one of his photos of Miller’s eye which he gave to her, Ray hand wrote this note:
With an eye always in reserve
forever being put away
Taken for a ride…
put on the spot…
The racket must go on
I am always in reserve
Art making is full of obsessions and obsessional people. There’s no way to know what will become that powerful force that pulls you in, thrusts you forward, speaks to you so insistently that you have to let it have you. Many male artists have had similar obsessions with young beautiful women (several books have been written on this topic such as The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired which I would recommend) so the Ray/Miller relationship is a form we are familiar with. My fixations are of a different nature, not focused on other humans. But mine have been consuming and overwhelming as well. To each his own.
One more note: The art historian and former director of the Rose Art Museum, Carl Belz, did his doctoral dissertation on Man Ray. You can read his very personal account of his encounters with Man Ray here.