‘Picasso nearly fell over backwards when he saw her’ – Lee Miller’s son on their intense relationship | Art and design

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‘Picasso nearly fell over backwards when he saw her’ – Lee Miller’s son on their intense relationship | Art and design

There is a photo of American photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller with Pablo Picasso, taken by her after the liberation of Paris in 1944. They look into each other’s eyes with such intimacy that you feel like you are penetrating something deeply personal. Not romantic, exactly – though the way his hand grazes the back of her neck is definitely intimate – but deeply loving, perhaps. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the image has been chosen to promote a new exhibition centered on Miller’s extraordinary life and the relationship between these two artists, opening this week at Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, West Sussex. open.

It captured, her son Antony Penrose says, an extraordinary moment after years of hardship and separation. “Lee found her way to Picasso’s studio in Rue des Grands-Augustins, hammering on the door. He opened it and almost fell over. And he hugged her and he kissed her and he hugged her, and then finally, when he stood back, he looked at her and said, ‘This is amazing. The first allied soldier I have to see is a woman. She is you.”

Miller and Picasso met properly in 1937, on a beach holiday in the south of France, although their paths may have crossed earlier that decade when she worked with Man Ray and discovered the process of solarization for which he, not she , would end. be credited. A deep friendship developed 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 holidayed together, often at the Spaniard’s various homes . Antony, who was born in 1947, remembers many children and animals: Picasso allowed a goat named Esmerelda to sleep outside his room and he called to her because she was afraid of the dark. There would be long lunches, with the kind of exotic foods that were a rarity in post-war Britain, and practical jokes too. Miller enjoyed placing ice cubes with frozen flies in drinks.

Miller’s photo of a picnic with Nusch, Paul Éluard, Roland Penrose, Man Ray and Ady Fidelin. Photo: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2013. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk

Penrose remembers being asked at school what he did during the holidays, and he amazed his classmates with his response. “I said very casually: ‘Oh, we visited Picasso.’ I had no idea that this was an exceptional thing to do because it was approached with such incredible modesty by my parents. They never said, ‘Look, this guy is the greatest living modern artist in the world.’ He was just a person who treated them with great respect and reverence.”

Picasso respected Miller as an artist, Penrose says, 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 had 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 is a long-standing obsession with her “muses”. This became a problem when Penrose began trying to curate exhibitions of his mother’s work. “To begin with, when I approached people who should have known better, I would have to explain that Lee Miller was a woman. Then they’d find it and say, ‘Oh yeah, she was Man Ray’s muse.’ And then I’ll have to disabuse them of that idea.”

However, things began to change in the 1980s when feminists began to re-examine the lives of female artists, especially surrealists. As was the case with other models who became artists, Miller’s work 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 love it. When they talked to some of them later in life, they said it was as if she saw it as a tutorial. She would constantly ask questions.”

A famous family friend... a young Antony Penrose with Picasso in 1950.
A famous family friend… a young Antony Penrose with Picasso in 1950. Photo: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2022. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk © Succession Picasso/DACS 2022

This meant that when Miller’s career as a fashion model came to an abrupt end – she was blacklisted after modeling for Kotex, there was a 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, first documents the blitz, followed by the liberation of Europe. The image of her in Hitler’s bath, taken by fellow photographer David E Scherman when the Führer’s death was announced, shows her defiance: she often joked about how tough his apartment was, says Penrose. The boots in front of the bath are still covered 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 rage. 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 causes a sense of disconnection. “If we look at Lee through that prism, we see that she was able to distance herself emotionally to a point. So let’s have her stare into the faces of dead people in concentration camps and photograph them up close. When I interviewed Scherman, I said, ‘How does she do it? How is she standing there taking these pictures?’ And he said she was in an icy rage.”

Her wartime experiences exacerbated what Penrose believed was PTSD. He says Miller wasn’t much of a mother. As many traumatized people tend to abuse alcohol, she could become enraged, and there was a distance between them. Miller saw babies die in hospital in Vienna due to a lack of drugs sold on the black market – and held her son at arm’s length, despite being very concerned for his safety.

I get the feeling that it must have hurt a lot, especially since Miller could be so warm to others. Yet Penrose is magnanimous, having devoted much of his life to establishing her legacy as an artist and acting as director of the Lee Miller Archive and Penrose Collection at his parents’ former home, Farley House in Sussex, where Picasso stayed during his second visit. to the UK in 1950. They have also hosted Man Ray, Miró, Max Ernst, Eileen Agar, Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton over the years. There is a beautiful photograph in the show of young Penrose sitting on Picasso’s knee, a look of happy complicity between them. It was during this visit that Picasso took a shine to the couple’s Ayrshire bull, William, which inspired the 1950 print Grasshopper Bulls, which had never before been shown in the UK.

“I know there were 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 it matters. He respected her a lot, enjoyed her company and valued her friendship.” When I ask how she feels about female artists constantly being viewed in terms of their relationship to men, she is candid about using Miller’s friendship with Picasso as a way to bring new audiences to her work – but also says that you can hardly separate the two. Miller took nearly 1,000 photographs of the artist over 40 years.

Inspiration… Picasso's Grasshopper Bulls were created after taking a shine to Miller and Penrose's Ayrshire bull, William.
Inspiration… Picasso’s Grasshopper Bulls were created after taking a shine to Miller and Penrose’s Ayrshire bull, William. Photo: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2022. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk © Succession Picasso/DACS 2022

“Their relationship was extraordinary,” adds Binkin. “She takes some wonderful images of Picasso at work and at play, but also at home and at leisure, which was more difficult in his later years because he was very, very aware of the camera. He knew how important it was to have his picture taken. She has access to Picasso at moments when he is not playing in front of the camera.”

The #MeToo movement, Binkin notes, was not good for Picasso. “I personally don’t think we can judge him as harshly as he was by some,” she says. Penrose agrees. Although he sees the feminist criticism as justified in his way, he points out that Picasso the man was a complex character. “Of course there were times when he might not have treated women well. But I don’t think it’s right for us to be in judgment at this point. It’s very easy to gloss over 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 to make 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 special love for her. And he would be more gentle if she was there.”

Miller would later call herself, perhaps sardonically, a “Picasso widow.” She 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 like we were the same person, so it didn’t matter.’ Then it started to matter.” But when it came to Picasso, Miller was anything but bitter, and her work now speaks for itself. Getting to this place, says Penrose, “was uphill all the way. But we won in the end.”

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