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Lee Miller and Man Ray

5 May, 2011

Next month (on June 11, 2011), Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism will open in the Peabody Essex Museum’s special exhibitions galleries. At the heart of the show is a love story – the failed romance that Ray and Miller shared from 1929-32, the devastating effect the breakup had on Ray when they split up, and the lasting friendship they built from the ashes. But it’s also one of those incredible stories in which two artists pushed, challenged, and inspired each other across a variety of disciplines. Their work changed the face of photography in the 1930s, with their joint perfection of solarization (also called the Sabatier Effect), and Miller’s pioneering Surrealist street photography, finding unstaged ‘surreal’ scenes on the streets of Paris. But it also had ripple effects in other fields. It shows the way in which media can be connected – photography, painting, sculpture, and book arts coming together in a synthesis of media.

The show reminds me how human, intimate, and even fragile art movements can be. Together and separately, Ray and Miller had a substantial effect on modern art and photography. And though you could argue that either artist would have been known even if they hadn’t met – Ray, for example, was already established when Miller met him – there is no doubting their relationship was decisive in each artist’s career, and that they, in turn, influenced countless others.

The show traces the white heat of their time together in Paris, the chaotic disintegration of their breakup, their reconciliation just before the Second World War, and the evolution of their relationship in the years that followed. Both married other spouses, and Miller slipped into a debilitating depression that haunted the rest of her life. Piecing the story back together through the limited correspondence that remains, but mostly through works of art, has been an art historian’s dream. The end result though, has been unexpected. The works speak on many different levels. The works address universal themes – love, loss, and the search for identity. Each picture is also a time capsule, providing a window into the lives of Miller and Ray, their compassion, determination and selfishness. They were hugely consequential people, wildly creative, passionate, and imperfect.

The catalogue will be published by Merrell Publishers in London.

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