What Makes It Great?

What Makes It Great? / July 15, 2011

Man Ray & Lee Miller: “Partners in Surrealism”


Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller by Man Ray, c.1930


     At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts through December 4, 2011, “Partners in Surrealism”, explores the individual and combined efforts of a pillar of the Surrealist movement, Man Ray, and his student, lover, muse and finally friend, Lee Miller.  Surrealists created “provocative combinations of ordinary things” and in Paris, between 1929 and 1932, Ray and Miller utilized these techniques and one another to great effect.  Man Ray’s portraits of Miller featured unusual angles, patterns of light on her body, abstraction of her nude form and, after she jilted him, the famous transplantation of her eye or lips into his other works.  Lee Miller’s work occurred more frequently outside of the studio and, reflecting her avante guard sensibilities, featured portraits that were frontal and empowered compared to Ray’s often romantic and seductive compositions. 

     It was Miller who accidentally discovered the method of “solarization” in the darkroom one day when she momentarily flicked on the lights.  Thereafter, Ray and Miller both used the technique to give their work an other-worldliness that exemplified the surrealist movement.  The most emblematic work from this period is Man Ray’s “Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller” (1930), which shows a close-up profile of Miller in her unaffected style, with a halo of solarization that transforms her image into a different realm, in Man Ray’s style.  This beautiful and iconic portrait embodies their combined spirits and is perhaps the best example of their collaborative work.

Elin Spring

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on July 19, 2011

Your brilliant short review will make my visit to the PEM to see this show so much more interesting and knowledge based.
I read all six of your “What Makes it Great?” pieces and am impressed both with your writing and your descriptions of art photography technique. Every one of your essays opened my eyes to a more expert way of looking at photographs. Thank you.

    on July 19, 2011

    I greatly appreciate your compliments and hope you enjoy the exhibit!

      on August 3, 2011

      Elin, love your review! Just saw this exhibit last week and while I’d seen a retrospective of Miller’s work it did not remotely touch on the professional and romantic relationship between Miller and Ray.

      I completely agree with your comments on Miller’s frontal more confrontational and edgier style (in the portraits) as compared to Ray’s. Her feminism as compared to Ray’s romanticism that you described above could perhaps have also contributed to how attached Ray remained after Miller left him and how he continuously quoted her (and her appendages!) in his work. Thanks for your review and wish I were closer so I could hear more of your opinions on this exhibit!

        on August 3, 2011

        It is wonderful when a fresh focus on older work can spark new ideas and discussion! I’m delighted you enjoyed my review.

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