Another arresting erotic image by the master Surrealist photographer, Man Ray. I cannot accurately determine the date it was taken, however as it features his lover Juliet Browner (and later wife, they were married in a dual ceremony with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning in Beverly Hills in 1946) and Margaret Nieman who was his neighbour in Los Angeles during the early 1940’s, 1942 would seem to be the likeliest year.
Man Ray frequently photographed his lovers in embraces with other women, notably Lee Miller and her room-mate Tanja Ramm (though not the photograph of Lee and Tanja having breakfast in bed, that was taken by Lee’s father) and later, Ady Fidelin with the ultimate Surrealist muse Nusch Eluard.
The totem-like masks were designed by Man Ray himself and certainly add an aura of strangeness and animalistic carnality to the scene. In the early 30’s in Paris, Man Ray had become involved with the Lost Generation American travel writer and occultist William Seabrook and had photographed several of Seabrook’s sadistic mise-en-scene involving masks. Seabrook’s sexual proclivities were also the subject of the extremely unsettling essay by Michel Leiris, The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife, published in Georges Bataille magazine Documents.
As regulars visitors will know, I have an unending fascination with the romance and creative collaboration between Man Ray and Lee Miller. I recently discovered this wonderful and wittily titled photograph of Lee taken by Man Ray in The Lives of Lee Miller written by her son Antony Penrose.
Man Ray work frequently featured the technique of light patterns upon the body and face, a striking way to render the familiar unfamiliar and by doing so adding an extra erotic allure, which was the essence of the Surrealist attitude to desire.
When British Vogue sent staff over to Man Ray’s Montparnasse studio in 1929 they were greeted by his new assistant, who was also doubling up as his receptionist, Lee Miller. She was ‘…a vision so lovely they forgot why they had come.’
Lee Miller had left her very successful modelling career in New York at the age of 21 to become a photographer in Paris, then the centre of the art world. She had set her sights on learning the craft from her fellow American, the pioneering photographer, film-maker and painter Man Ray. Approaching him in a cafe she told him her name and that she was his new student. Man Ray answered that he didn’t take students and besides he was going to Biarritz the next day. Miller answered that is where she was going too. Man Ray, unsurprisingly, was captivated and they did indeed go to Biarritz, the start of an incredibly intense artistic and romantic relationship.
Man Ray soon realised her talent and their artistic relationship was reciprocal. It was Miller who, by letting in the light on the darkroom, discovered the technique of solarization (see Dreams of Desire 31 (Solarization)) that became a Man Ray trademark. In fact it is hard sometimes to distinguish their work from this period apart, as Miller herself commented, “We were almost the same person when we were working.”
Self Portrait is from the period immediately after the bitter break-up of 1932 (see Dreams of Desire 12 (The Lovers)). The classical pose generates a muscular tension that accentuates her astounding beauty. As an aside, there exists a brand of champagne glass shaped from a mould of Miller’s left breast.
As a young girl the British surrealist Eileen Agar travelled from her birthplace of Buenos Aires to England on a luxury liner accompanied by a cow and an orchestra. Her wealthy American mother believed that milk and music were essential in a child’s development and therefore had made the necessary arrangements so that she wasn’t deprived of them on the long ocean voyage.
After such a childhood it is no surprise that Eileen Agar belonged to the Surrealist movement. She had first met Andre Breton with her future husband, the Hungarian Jewish writer Joseph Bard in Paris in 1928 and was a member of the London Group from 1934.She was the only British woman artist to be featured in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 ( see John Deth) where she had a total of three paintings and five objects displayed. She had a passionate affair with the Surrealist artist Paul Nash and holidayed with Picasso, Dora Maar, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller (who photographed her several times, see Surrealist Women: Lee Miller), Nusch Eluard and the poet Paul Eluard, with whom she had a brief and intense fling with.
As well as being a painter, Agar experimented successfully with collages, ready-made and found objects; and was also a photographer, hat-maker and a writer. She exhibited with the Surrealists in New York, Amsterdam and Tokyo as well as having numerous one-women shows in the U.K. She published her autobiography A Look At My Life at the age of 89 in 1988. She died in 1991 at the age of 91.
Below is her masterpiece The Autobiography Of An Embryo from 1933-1934, which was acquired by the Tate Gallery for its permanent collection in 1989.
Although the immediate impression is that the shoulders are at the bottom edge with the buttocks towards the top, it could also be argued that the reverse is in fact the reality; which makes Miller’s photograph a excellent illustration of the Surrealist principle of questioning perception.