Surrealist Women: Lee Miller

Lee Miller-1931
Fashion model, muse, Surrealist photographer, war correspondent, writer and later Lady Penrose, chatelaine of Farley Farm House in East Sussex where the darkroom had turned into a kitchen where she perfected dishes for visiting artists including Picasso, her former lover Man Ray, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning; Lee Miller was one of the most exceptional people to have engaged with the Surrealist movement.

After reporting and photographing the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, Miller photographed dying children in a Viennese hospital and covered the execution of the Hungarian Prime Minister. The war took its toll on Miller, however, after returning to England she would frequently experience severe bouts of depression, haunted by the atrocities she had witnessed in the concentration camps.

Below is a photograph taken just hours after leaving Dachau; in Hitler’s apartment Miller is naked in his bathtub. Her boots are covered with the muck and grime of Dachau and have soiled the bathmat. A few hours later Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide in the bunker.

Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub-David Scherman 1945

57 thoughts on “Surrealist Women: Lee Miller

      1. Thank you very much…I enjoy your blog as well…trouble is will I ran out of material sooner rather than later…surely I cannot connect everything to surrealism…Lee Miller was fantastic and Surrealism had the most women artists than any other art movement(even though Surrealism tried not to an art movement that is what has been remembered for) but because they had romantic liasions with male surrealist they have been either sidelined or over-estimated…the gender politics around surrealism is fascinating because they are generally perceived as being misogynistic. Again thank you for the very kind words and i am glad you enjoy the blog

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      2. My art fetish for a long time was cubism, and it was fun to explore painting, literature, and music, as well as the sexual politics of the artists. Maybe you can find some writers or composers who identify with surrealism to study?

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      3. Right, I could go on for hours. Apollonaire the champion of cubism was the first to coin the word in reference to Erik Satie piece…that’s it really for composers…surrealism weakest link is definitely music…john cage later worked with duchamp but to call him a surrealist would be going too far…surrealism was at the beginning a literary movement(or rather anti-literary) Andre Breton was the ‘Pope’ of the movement and his writing is excellent…other writers include Louis Aragon, Rene Crevel, Paul Eluard, Giorgio Di Chirico wrote a novel, Man Ray autobiograpghy is excellent, Antonin Artaud, Claude Cahun…as for sexual politics Breton was a bit of a homophobe to an extent…Claude Cahun whose photograph is the subject of my early post Dreams of Desire 3 was encouraged by Breton was an out lesbian, Rene Crevel was bisexual, the accusations of misogyny are to a certain extent right as there was a lot of objective of women as muses, le femme enfants, but it also encouraged and nurtured female artists…as for their stand on race read my earlier post redraw the map…the above list is not exhaustive and the influence on 20c literature and cinema was massive so many works are Surrealistic without being Surrealist

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  1. I did see photos of her at the end of World War II and she looked like a different person, not in a good way. She looked like she had been through Hell. and now putting that together, the camps…I guess I though it was Dorothea Lange who photographed them but no that was the Japanese intern camps, and right, I do now remember that it was Lee Miller. It’s impossible to imagine ANYTHING more horrible (other than being a victim of them) than visiting them, still rife with decaying humankind, stacked skeletons and ashes. I remember reading that Hitchcock was supposed to have made a documentary about it and he was so disturbed and distraught by the camps, it broke him down during the filming…I think the film wasn’t released although maybe a version is available now. And although he was always dark from his days of making the movie the Lodger about Jack the Ripper, it opened his imagination to a new, darker hell, darker than ever imaginable.

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    1. Mervyn Peake who wrote the Gothic fantasy Gormenghast which I loved as a teenager was a war artist who was present at the liberation of Belsen, before he draw charming whimsical illustrations for the Alice books and Treasure island after, well the figures became emaciated and sicklier, his health broke down and he been subject to depression…how could anyone witness that and carry on like nothing had happened?

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      1. Maybe it is a good thing Hitler killed himself right after she soiled the bathmat; I don’t think he would have forgiven her! I have always been intrigued by the women who loved Hitler, such as Unity Mitford (another great story).

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      2. The youngest one was quite “normal” and practical, wasn’t she–Deborah? I did enjoy her memoir but then I am Mitford fan, not because of their politics, but because of their writing styles. Love Nancy’s “Love in a Cold Climate”.

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  2. Wonderful post, a beautiful tribute to Miller. She did an excellent job of preparing the tube/bath room for the photo.

    I always wondered about the intimacy that Lee Miller shared with David Scherman. Not so much as in way it sounds, but rather a special understanding between the two of them, a bond that can only be shared by witnessing and photographing such atrocities.

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    1. It does make you wonder, it would be a special bond, but a bond that maybe it would be painful to be reminded off. I don’t think that the journalists and correspondents and artists had any clue what they were going to witness, also the soldiers. The English artist and writer Mervyn Peake was the war artist present at the liberation of Belsen and I don’t think he ever recovered either.

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      1. Indeed life does have to go on, and the sun comes up everyday. No one is immune to tragedy, no one, although most of us are spared these types of completely horrific tragedies first hand and are somewhat removed by at least one degree. I think you do whatever you have to do, in whatever fashion that requires to make it though the days, months and even years.

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