Solarized Portrait of Lee Miller Thought to be Meret Oppenheim, Paris, France, 1930, copyright Lee Miller Archives, England 2012The iconic face (and body) of the 20th century, Lee Miller was a muse for many of the great artists of the period and an impressive talent in her own right. Discovered by Condé Nast, Miller worked as a Vogue fashion model before she pursued a career in photography, assisting Man Ray at his Paris studio where she became his subject and lover. Later, Miller would go behind the lens for Vogue as a photojournalist. She covered World War II and spent time with American troops as an embedded journalist. During this period, Miller documented the London Blitz and the liberation of Paris and was one of the first to produce evidence of the Holocaust with images from Dachau and Buchenwald. After the war, Miller suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and, undiagnosed, retreated to Farley Farm in Sussex where she lived with her husband Roland Penrose, "the friendly surrealist", and their only child, Antony. The house was visited regularly by the couple’s surrealist circle of friends, who filled their house with art and charmed their young son. Since her death in 1977, Miller has been championed by Antony, who wrote the 1985 biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, and hosts visitors to Farley Farm every summer for tours of the Miller/Penrose family home, which has been preserved as it was when his parents lived there. AnOther spoke to Antony Penrose about his unorthodox childhood, unusual friendships and his enigmatic mother.
Was growing up surrounded by surrealism, well, surreal?
It seemed normal at the time, and since then it has taken me a long time to find out what 'normal' is, and I don’t like it much.
When did you first become aware that your household was not a ‘normal’ one?
When I was at school at about the age of fourteen, I began to realise that my life was in some ways different, but it did not make much of an impression because a lot of my peers were sons of diplomats, scientists or military people who seemed to have even more exciting lives than mine.
You have documented your friendship with Picasso in the children’s book, ‘The Boy Who Bit Picasso’, an unusual playmate for a little boy. Were you always with adults in childhood or did you have friends your own age?
Most of my friends in childhood were adults. I had two really good friends in the village but mostly I was with the people on the farm who I liked very much and this rather wonderful collection of people who later turned out to have been the most important modern artists and surrealists.
Man Ray, Max Ernst, Henry Moore and Joan Miró were among those that frequented Farley Farm. Who (other than Picasso) left the greatest impression?
I was very fond of Man Ray. He was wonderfully inventive and seemed to know a lot about technical things that interested me. He made good jokes and I was also inspired by his work. Max Ernst was a bit alarming as he used to talk loudly and wave his arms around excitedly but Miró was good to be around – quiet and still, like a Buddhist monk.
"Man Ray made good jokes and I was also inspired by his work. Max Ernst was a bit alarming as he used to talk loudly and wave his arms around excitedly but Miró was good to be around – quiet and still, like a Buddhist monk"
Were you ever intimidated by your parents and their peers? Did you feel any pressure to follow in their footsteps?
No I was never intimidated or pressured. My parents were very generous and understanding. I rebelled against them and instead of being an artist I tried to become a mechanical engineer. My father was very encouraging, even though I could see he did not understand my interest at all.
What is your earliest memory of your mother?
Playing in the kitchen with her at Farley Farm.
You have talked in the past about her unique sense of humour and in particular about the way she dressed – with a frilly net toilet seat cover as a hat, trash jewellery mixed with her Cartier ring – and yet the images I have seen of her portray quite a different character – reserved and stoic, almost. Was she naturally something of a performer?
Yes, she could rise to an occasion. She always stated firmly she could not act – that was not true. She could rise above her sadness and be the sparkling witty person she had been, and then when the circumstances passed she would sink back into depression.
You wrote the play ‘Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend’ from a mixture of manuscripts and letters Lee had left boxed up in your home. What was the greatest revelation for you upon discovering these documents and do you think she intended you to find them?
I can’t tell if my mother intended me to find her hidden materials. I suppose she put them away carefully in the hope they would one day be discovered but she was so secretive about her career that I had no idea of her achievements until after she died and we found her work. Then it was an incredible journey for both me and my father. I had only known my mother as a useless drunk – after the war her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused her to become a depressive and an alcoholic. She was very difficult to those close to her but when I began to tell my father about the information I was finding on her life he was as astonished as I was. There were some very emotional moments when we wished we had known about her war experiences because then we could have been more understanding towards her.
Is that one of the reasons you continue to pursue her legacy? To help you better understand her as well as your relationship?
Yes of course but there is a deeper drive. I am fascinated by the way her life and work is so relevant to others, particularly young women. I have a wonderful collection of stories told to me by women who have dumped abusive relationships or careers they did not want and gone to pursue their dreams, as photographers, journalists or artists. I also find that the deep subtext of Surrealism, which was their passion for peace and freedom and justice, is something that is still as important now as it was in the repressive and politically traumatic times in which they lived. Her work is so amazing that working with it is in itself deeply rewarding. If you think her photography is good, study her writing – she is in a class of her own there. If she had wanted to be a novelist I am sure she would have been very successful.
You open Farley Farm to visitors, manage Lee and your father Roland Penrose’s archives, and send their collection around the world to be exhibited. I’m curious – are there any pieces you’ve kept back for you and only you?
We are prepared to show everything if the context is right. dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel was the first time we showed the objects Lee Miller took from Hitler’s house. The purpose behind this was to remind people that Hitler and people like him are not monsters – they are people like us, and the ability we have as humans to perform acts of terrible inhumanity runs throughout and it is something we must always watch out for and guard against. In the mid 18th Century the Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke stated “For evil to happen all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing”. The same is true today.
Lastly, what is the greatest lesson in life you learnt from your mother?
In the face of adversity look for good things and treasure them.
Lee Miller is at Galerie Hiltawsky until October 6 2012
Text by Frankie Mathieson