Curated by Eleanor Clayton, the exhibition was originally produced by The Hepworth Wakefield. I had the pleasure to see it at the Fundació Joan Miró of Barcelona, in an expanded version of the show.
The pivot of the exhibition is American artist Lee Miller. A pioneer, model, photographer, and art-lover, Miller has recently become one of the most celebrated figures of Surrealism (recently featuring in exhibitions at Tate Modern and the Barbican). Born near New York in 1907, she lived and worked both in America and Europe, and had strong connections with Roland Penrose (her second husband), Man Ray, André Breton, Paul Nash, Max Ernst, and many other members of the Surrealist circle.
The 9-room exhibition journeys through the years with a chronological approach, starting from the First International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, in 1936. The (re)discovery of this section is the art of Eileen Agar, the only British female artist featuring in the New Burlington Galleries exhibition. Her ‘Quadriga’ is balanced and explosive, colourful and meditative, with a conceptual twist – it’s a true Surrealist masterpiece. It possesses a secret, indecipherable harmony, which I remembered from her works in the White Cube exhibition Dreamers Awake.
Eileen Agar, ‘Quadriga’ (1935)
As through a prism, Surrealism is seen through the lenses of Miller, in her kaleidoscopic interplay with her fellow artists. In 1937, she participated in the “sudden Surrealist invasion” in Cornwall, a gathering organised by Penrose, and she took touching portraits of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. The following year she collaborated with the London Bulletin, a Surrealist periodical edited by E.L.T. Mesens and published by the London Gallery. Year after year, Miller emerges as fully immersed in the movement’s atmosphere, frequenting all the “right” cultural milieux of those years and absorbing their artistic possibilities.
Print copies of the London Bulletin (1938-40)
Used as she was to broadening her horizons in her travels, Miller also worked for British Vogue, channelling her passion for photography, her penchant for quirkiness and her incredible talent into fashion shots. In addition, she pioneered as a photojournalist and freelance war correspondent, capturing thought-provoking images of Hitler’s secret apartments and the atrocities of wartime. In her shots, she made extensive use of solarisation, the photographic technique she discovered while working with Man Ray. As the show makes abundantly clear, Miller was nothing short of her male colleagues when it came to artistic innovations and experimental methods.
Lee Miller, ‘Corsetry-Solarised Photograph’ (1942)
This wonderful exhibition makes two points. On the one hand, it asserts the role of Britain as an international centre for Surrealism, establishing London as a counterpart to the (perhaps) over-celebrated Paris. On the other hand, it shows how Miller not only documented, but also lived and breathed Surrealism. Her photographs are Surrealist because they portray exponents of the movement, but also because they embody the true essence of Surrealism: original, dreamy, and indefatigably out of the box.