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Why no War in Man Ray Lee Miller?

19 August, 2011

It’s pretty normal for us to have visitor comment books in exhibitions, and like most curators I check in now and then during the run of a show and read through the comments with great interest. If you ever wondered what happens when you leave comments at a museum, you can be pretty sure they are taken seriously. Here at PEM, when a visitor book is full, the contents are transcribed in full and circulated between departments in the museum. The hope is that these comments can help us do things better.

Of course we always hope to see nice comments, but we also want to find out if there are any errors or omissions that need to be addressed during the run of the show. The comment book for Man Ray Lee Miller is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, because lots of folks felt inspired to draw little eyes and lips, and the comments are more positive and heartfelt than for any other exhibition I’ve worked on. We even had a couple write to say that they had come all the way from Argentina to see the show and were not disappointed! But there is one issue that left several visitors puzzled. Why are none of Lee Miller’s photographs of the Second World War in Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism?

The first answer is, as powerful and important as those pictures are, they are beyond the scope of the exhibition. Both Man Ray and Lee Miller had long careers, but in our exhibition we only focussed on works directly related to their time together – things they did as a team, or in response to one another. Man Ray, for example, was well established by the time Lee met him – there’s nothing in our show about his time with Kiki of Montparnasse, his work as a Dadaist in New York and Philadelphia, or the time he spent in Los Angeles. Likewise, we didn’t put in any pictures from Lee’s New York studio period, wonderful as they are. They just didn’t fit the show, the same way the war pictures don’t. Lee did them independently, with no real connection to Man Ray.

But there’s another reason, that’s more personal. To me, to do the pictures justice, you really have to spend time with them. The things Lee saw and recorded are among the most brutal and repugnant acts ever recorded on camera. She photographed piles of dead corpses in the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, emaciated prisoners condemned to starve in railway cars, and the bloody retribution visited on Nazi guards when concentration camps were liberated (as in the picture above). These are not trivial, throwaway things. We have all become a little inured to the unbearable pain and injustice represented by certain photographs, from war scenes to images of natural disasters and famine. And part of the reason for that is how common these pictures have become. It would not be enough, in my opinion, to simply show a few of Lee’s war pictures in an exhibition and say, “oh, by the way, she had a terrible time during the war, look at these pictures.” The human suffering each picture represents cannot be dismissed so easily. Each demands explanation. The victims and perpetrators need to be understood, the messages digested.

So no, there are no war pictures in Man Ray Lee Miller. It’s not that the pictures aren’t incredible, amazing, and important. Instead, I’d say they’re too important to be made into mere footnotes in an exhibition about the relationship between two artists. Many of them can be seen online, if you care to look. But the best way to view them I think is in the extraordinary book, Lee Miller’s War, by Antony Penrose. It’s still in print. But if you get your hands on a copy, please be prepared to give it your attention.

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