The stormy lovestory between Man Ray and Lee Miller on display in Venice

Germano d'Acquisto, Marie Claire, October 23, 2022




“Me too". With these words began one of the most stormy and creative love stories in 20th century art history: the one between Man Ray and Lee Miller. Imagine the scene. We’re in Paris. It’s spring 1929. At a coffee table at a bar called Bateau Ivre on the Left Bank, Lee is looking for photography lessons. Next to her, here comes the surrealist master. “There is no way, I don’t take students", he says. " And then, I’m leaving for the holidays in Biarritz". " Me too", she answers, cheeky and irresistible.


But how? In front of the personality of a giant like Man Ray anyone would step back. Exactly, anyone but Lee. Just go through their extraordinary creative collaboration to realize it. The two were one of the bohemian It-Couples of Paris. And they lived their love story without prevaricating. Now, an exhibition staged at Palazzo Franchetti in Venice bears witness to this unequivocally. Lee Miller. Fashion, love, war, from November 5th to April 1st, presents 140 shots and various art objects that tell of this miraculous creative and loving balance (“If Ray took your hand or touched you”, Miller said, “you felt an almost magnetic warmth”) that contradicts the cliché that the woman was simply the muse of the American painter and photographer. Of course, it is undeniable: Miller posed countless times for Man Ray. And often, she did it completely naked. Yet inside the darkroom the two artists confabulated, tested, experimented so much that the final result was difficult to attribute to either. They have been a fixed couple for four intense years, working together side by side, almost tripping over each other, at a very close distance. It is thanks to this liaison that they discovered the magic of Solarization, a technique that produces a dark aura around an image when the developing negative is exposed to a flash off light. The portraits made with tis technique seemed to come from another world. Some wrote that they “possessed the eerie charm of surrealism without the usual cloying symbolism”. Probably it was true.


Many of these works have now entered the myth. Yet most of them have always been attributed to Man Ray. An injustice that the Venetian exhibition curated by Victoria Noel-Johnson finally tries to remedy. Although objectively it is not a simple work: when the two met, in fact, Ray was already on of the most original artists of the time, especially for the photos he made without a camera, placing objects directly on photographic paper and preserving their shadows. While Miller had not yet blossomed. For some time she had been a model. Coincidentally, one day publisher Condé Montrose Nast saved her from being hit by a truck while she wandered around Manhattan. In a few days she found herself on the cover of Vogue.The blond hairstyle and the piercing eyes of the native of Poughkeepsie gave her the appearance of “a kid kissed by the sun of the Via Appia”, said Cecil Beaton. Yet that “kid” of Lee was also man-eater. Legend narrates that when Lee, just twenty-two, decided to leave New York to reach Paris aboard the Comte de Grasse, his two lovers of the time threw a coin to see which of them would greet her on the platform. Thus while the winner waved the white handkerchief as he saw her moving away along the Hudson, his rival had rented a biplane from which he threw a shower of red roses on the ship bound for Europe. With such premises the effect of the encounter between the former model and the great artist could only have deflagrating effects. Both intense and temporary. The end came in 1932, when the woman after yet another fight for reused negatives decided to move to New York and open a photo studio.


For Man Ray it will be a tragedy. The devastated artist will fall into depression, taking refuge in the work. It is in this period that he will make some of the most memorable pieces of his career. One of the most famous is the iconic metronome with a ticking eye. The eye was that of Lee Miller and the idea behind the piece was that the viewer would watch that eye ticking back and forth until, exhausted, he would not smash it into a thousand pieces. In this way he would exorcise a lost love. The exorcism will take effect later. The two in fact will be reconciled during a party in 1937. In the 1940s, Lee became a photojournalist and told about World War II on the pages of Vogue. She will be the only female photographer to be granted permission to travel independently in European war zones. But from 1937 on until the end of their life, Man Ray and Lee Miller will remain bound forever. Somehow, in love. One of the most moving photos of the two together dates back to 1975. You see Lee already quite old, pushing a fragile Man Ray, now sitting in a wheelchair, on the occasion of the inauguration of one of the last exhibitions dedicated to him. A moving image that testifies more than anything else that deep down, their love has been eternal.