The Artist’s Home Undone
When an image comes between artists Man Ray and Lee Miller it is painted to situate the power dynamic inherent in their collaboration. Decades later, the painting’s meaning changes as its complicated authorship is brought to light.
Elizabeth “Lee” Miller (1907-1977) lives at the heart—and the lips, neck, and eyes—of some of the most famous works by Man Ray (1890-1976). As his apprentice, collaborator, lover, and muse, she often posed for him at the Paris studio that the two shared during their romantic relationship, which lasted from 1929 to 1932. Man Ray’s photography from this era made Miller’s face and body world famous. Yet one photograph in particular nearly didn’t survive: 1930’s Neck is a haunting view of Miller’s profile craning from the side, neck and face forming one ethereal, phallic column slanted against a void. Miller fished the negative out of the trash moments after it was discarded, and developed it in the same session, employing the bold cropping method she had learned from Man Ray to make a striking final product. Then she informed him that she was claiming it as her own work.
It was common for Miller to tease Man Ray, and even for their work to be misattributed to each other—such was the closeness of their professional and personal relationship. But on this day, a more serious quarrel than usual ensued. Man Ray threw Miller out of the studio, and when she returned, he’d slashed the print with a razor and pinned it to the wall, with red ink splashed across her neck. The following year, the same image of the neck appeared in his painting Le Logis de l’Artiste (The Artist’s Home), among other objects of the artist’s creation, in a pointed statement of ownership.
Although he was most often praised, both today and in his own time, for his innovative photography, Man Ray professed to identify primarily as a painter. His most famous paintings tend toward the airy and bombastic, favoring white or bright backgrounds with daring attention to color. By contrast, Logis looks like an ugly interaction. It feels like Dracula’s study. Its red hand is inherently guilty. The craning white neck is the snaking, restless ghost of a love affair. Why rest your eye on this dark jumble when a work like A l’Heure de L’Observatoire: Les Amoureux (Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936) beckons, with its gargantuan lips soaring through a light blue sky? Those lips also belonged to Lee Miller, haunting the artist for years after their separation.
Le Logis de l’Artiste, a black, white, and red painting about two and a half feet high, recedes among Man Ray’s more popular photographs and paintings. It is the story behind the painting, and the photograph that preceded it, that makes it a significant piece in his prolific career. To modern eyes, the slashing of the neck photograph seems like a clean break between a couple—and maybe cause for a restraining order—but Miller and Man Ray’s breakup was not a clearly defined event. It wasn’t truly official until her departure for New York in 1932. And Lee Miller lived with Le Logis de l’Artiste, along with numerous other works by Man Ray, on display in her home until her death in 1977. In interviews late in her life, she revered his artistic talents while declining to acknowledge her own.
In fact, the story nearly died with Lee Miller—along with most of her oeuvre. She rarely spoke of her own work after she settled down in England in 1947 following the birth of her son, Antony Penrose. If Antony and his late wife, Suzanna, hadn’t found Miller’s long-packed-away negatives and writing after her death, her identity as an artist would likely have been lost forever. The discovery of Neck in that archive prompted a memory from the photographer David Hurn, to whom Lee had related the story of its creation in 1976. It is that story, which came to light after the death of both Miller and Man Ray, which has brought the context of the painting to light and preserved its place in art history.
The dynamic the painting illustrates is particularly relevant today. Since the #MeToo movement resurfaced on an international scale in 2017, it has provoked regret and fury for women’s lost professional, academic, and artistic work—for what might have been, were it not for sexual harassment, gendered dismissal, and outright violence. In such a climate, the story of Le Logis de l’Artiste—of creative ownership, violence, passion both artistic and romantic—carries a pungent, discomfiting relevance. As we grapple with the question of what to do with the art of men who hurt women, it’s instructive to sit with Logis and its depiction of a literal altar to male genius—a concept that individuals and institutions still fight fiercely to preserve.
In 1929, 22-year-old Lee Miller sought out Man Ray at his Paris photography studio. She had been working as a model in New York: the story goes that she was serendipitously discovered by the publisher Condé Nast when he pulled her out of oncoming traffic. Struck by her beauty, he ignited the modeling career that eventually led to her pursuing photography as an artist, rather than a subject. Her first meeting with Man Ray was similarly romantic—after finding him absent from his studio, Miller went to a cafe for a drink; Man Ray walked into the cafe shortly thereafter. It was there that she informed him—not asking, but telling him—that she was his new student. He said he didn’t take students, but the two became lovers and collaborators almost immediately.
Dreams of a bohemian lifestyle and artistic opportunities with artists like Man Ray led Miller to Paris, but she was also escaping a traumatic childhood. Raped at the age of seven, she was left with gonorrhea, and witnessed a boyfriend drown in front of her when she was 19. While she never spoke of these events, they must have colored her outlook and relationships. Her move was also practical. Miller’s image had been used in an advertisement for Kotex menstrual products in 1928 without her permission, causing something of a scandal and making modeling work more difficult to find. It was famed Vogue fashion photographer Edward Steichen, who created the image used in the Kotex ad, who encouraged Miller to seek out Man Ray at his studio.
At first glance, the coupling could be dismissed as a basic heteronormative mating ritual: Miller was attracted to his skills and success in the art world, and Man Ray, 17 years her senior, to her vivacious beauty. Perhaps that dynamic prevailed initially, but their personalities clicked in a way that led to a lifelong friendship long after their tumultuous parting. His sense of humor matched Miller’s in many ways, dry and silly in equal measures. Most important, they both reveled in the work itself, sharing the same adventurously artistic spirit. But they never settled into the happy household that Man Ray desired. Miller’s sexual openness was a double-edged sword for him. (In his autobiography, he is candid about the sexual frustration in his youth, admitting that nude models were a key attraction of his painting classes.) Echoing the pattern of his past relationships, he gravitated to her outgoing nature and artistic talent, but failed to keep her close to him.
Although she is typically described as Man Ray’s assistant during their time together, Miller set up her own separate studio after about nine months of apprenticeship, with Man Ray routinely passing portrait assignments to her. As her photography practice grew, Miller still modeled for Man Ray regularly and was still known as his mistress, even after the altercation that led to Le Logis de l’Artiste. It was Miller who accidentally turned on the light one day in a darkroom when a mouse ran across her foot—creating ethereally dark, shadowed outlines on the resulting photographs, which epitomized the other-worldliness that the Surrealists in their Paris circle so loved. They called the technique “solarization.” Man Ray perfected it, and Surrealist founder André Breton used several solarized photos for his publications. It was a teachable moment for Miller; although she had played a pivotal part in the discovery, it took the skills of a more seasoned photographer to reproduce it to its maximum effect.
Like many other artistic movements that sprang up after World War I, Surrealism reflected a collective shattering of faith in the rational. It differed from other contemporary movements in welcoming women as equals—at least in theory. Man Ray and Lee Miller saw where the action was happening and made their separate journeys to Paris, where Ray had set up his in-demand photo studio. There they both experimented with the Surrealist tenets of exploring the subconscious, embracing carnal desire, and subverting reality in favor of the more dreamlike d’ailleurs (“elsewhere”).
Calling either artist a “Surrealist” is not entirely accurate, however. Although Miller’s teenage journals describe a desire for “harmony with the infinite” in opposition to “the power of things that are,” aligning perfectly with the Surrealist ethos, and Man Ray did sign at least one of their manifestos, neither formally joined the movement. André Breton nevertheless recognized Man Ray among the movement’s most important visual artists, particularly in regard to the intersection between painting and photography. Breton saw barriers between Surrealism and photography because the medium was too deft in capturing reality, and thus antithetical to Surrealism’s glorification of the imagined. But Man Ray’s approach to photography was playful and transformative. He aimed to create a new reality, as though he were painting. His “Rayographs”—photographs taken without a camera, by placing objects on a photosensitized piece of paper and exposing it to light—launched everyday objects into a shadowy dream space. Dada founder Tristan Tzara called the resulting images “the projections … of dreaming objects that are talking in their sleep.” Man Ray often brought his Rayographs to photo shoots to amuse his wealthy or influential sitters, building his reputation as an innovator.
His good friend Marcel Duchamp patently discouraged Man Ray from painting, urging him to pursue photography. Certainly he was most valued by the Surrealists as a photographer. Breton recognized the artist’s skill in navigating multiple media, and wrote in 1928 that “it was most necessary for someone to come forward who should be not only an accomplished technician of photography but also an outstanding painter.…It was the great good fortune of Man Ray to be that man.”
In adhering to the new medium, Man Ray proved that he was not immune to the lure of being “first” in a particular field—a rampant trademark of the whirlwind artistic movements of the 1920s. He absorbed elements of many of them: as a founding Dadaist in New York, he displayed a sense of humor that persisted throughout his career. During the formative years of his early career in New York and New Jersey, Man Ray embraced color in his painting, and pursued non-representational elements, like his early Fauvist mentors. He also explored innovations in his painting, such as airbrushing—if he were alive today, he would almost certainly be having a ball with design software and smartphone apps. (The palette of Logis, so uncharacteristically limited and dark, suggests the gloom of his emotional state at the time.) He employed the swiftness of a Futurist, in his photography and his painting, but was more disciplined in his craft, and dismissed their war-loving fatalism, preferring pleasure. His painted portraits typically took less than 30 minutes to complete. Knowing this, it is difficult to imagine that he labored over Logis, a relatively small canvas. It is more plausible that the painting was a swift, furious exhalation of his passionate lack of patience.
It’s difficult to know whether Logis was exhibited in its early life. Man Ray loved to display his own paintings in his studio, and its first owner, the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, could have just picked the piece up on one of his many visits. Éluard dated it at 1926—which we know could not be correct, since Neck wasn’t taken till 1930. Roland Penrose, artist, biographer, and the “father of Surrealism in Britain,” purchased the painting from Éluard in 1938. He had been friendly with Man Ray throughout the 1920s and ’30s but didn’t meet Lee Miller until 1937, at which point they began an affair while she was still married to her first husband, Aziz Eloui Bey. Lee and Roland married when she became pregnant with their son Antony, the current director of the Penrose Collection and Lee Miller Archives, which still holds the painting. It is displayed at Farley Farm House in Sussex, England, where Antony and his parents lived. The indirect manner in which Logis arrived in Penrose and Miller’s collection was typical of the Surrealists’ intimate tanglings. Another example: Valentine Boué Penrose, Roland’s wife from 1925 to 1937, also lived at Farley Farm for long periods of time and was a treasured friend to both Lee and Antony.
The painting has been loaned from the Penrose Collection only a handful of times, first in 1968 for a Surrealist festival in Durham, England. The story behind the painting hadn’t yet come to light, but even if it had been public, it’s unlikely that it would have been advertised while Miller, Penrose, and Man Ray were all still alive.
It’s not clear why the story behind Logis wasn’t revealed until Antony Penrose’s conversation with David Hurn after Miller’s death. Penrose tells me there is no evidence that his father knew it was Miller’s neck in the picture—although “if he did, he probably would not have mentioned it because he would have been afraid of bringing Man Ray into disrepute.” Miller, who admired artists like Man Ray as much as Penrose did, would likely have toed the same line.
Besides, Antony Penrose doesn’t see the same darkness in Logis that I’ve described. “The ‘darkness’ of the work is only apparent when the back story is known,” he wrote to me. “I find it a wonderful illustration of how Man Ray’s possessiveness informed his work.” Indeed, the painting’s title and the objects in the composition are a decisive declaration of an artistic identity. Since the photograph Neck has always been publicly attributed to Man Ray, its reference in the painting would not have aroused suspicion of any jealous excess.
But the story is difficult to forget once heard. Sarah French, a former assistant picture librarian and tour guide at the Penrose Collection, told me that she found the painting “sinister,” and points it out as such in her script for tour groups: “This painting looks like quite a sinister piece, with the red hand slashing Lee’s neck. This is based on a photograph of her that they’d argued over.”
I couldn’t shake the story of that argument, and in 2013, when Gallery 263 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted a contest of short plays about the lives of famous artists, I took the opportunity to dramatize it. The play was how I ended up with a reproduction of the painting, created by the actor who played Man Ray, Eduardo Espada, an illustrator and painter. He whipped up an acrylic reproduction of Logis in about a day and characterized it as merely serviceable, but to a non-artist, it’s nothing short of remarkable. After the performances, he gave it to me in case it was needed for another production. At the time I was a grad student who couldn’t afford to buy art, so I ought to have hung it right away. Instead, the painting stayed wrapped in newspaper for four years—I couldn’t bear to hang it with the violence of the event so fresh in my mind. If I believed in bad energy, I might have believed it would somehow curse my own marriage.
As I thought more deeply about the altercation, I tried to understand why Man Ray chose to paint this scene instead of photographing it. He had photographed similar groups of objects in the recent past, and those in the painting appeared almost to scale, lifelike. What does it mean that he took the time to paint them instead? I talked about it with my Man Ray, Eduardo. “Painters are simultaneously liberated and limited—limited to their own vocabulary,” he said. “Painting is not a fountain of emotion—the idea percolates.” Even if Man Ray had painted quickly, it would still have taken longer than a photograph. That was extra time spent mulling over the scene, carefully committing Lee Miller to her permanent state as an object in light of her refusal to commit to him in real life.
Surrealist artists often incorporated everyday objects into their work, separating them from their expected function. While Man Ray employed this tactic regularly in his work, particularly with the collected objects in his Rayographs, other collections were far less subtle. The photograph Suicide, taken in 1932 after Lee Miller had left Paris for good, featured the artist pointing a pistol at his head with a rope around his neck, and poison and other dangerous accouterments arranged nearby. The pose terrified the model who was with him in the studio at the time, who had no idea whether the gun was loaded.
Le Logis de l’Artiste, also a collection of objects, encapsulates Man Ray’s own self-perception more fully than the blunt anguish of Suicide: The presence of objects he’d created previously makes Logis inseparable from his identity as an artist. The spiral of the cello neck belongs to his object Emak Bakia (1926), a cello with horse hair attached, although the hair is not included in the painting. The object’s Basque title translates to leave me alone. The cello appears in his 1926 film of the same name, which stars another of his famous muses, Kiki de Montparnasse (née Alice Prin). The red mannequin hand and the implement it holds—thought to be an automotive valve spring—are from his 1927 sculpture Objet (Object). Even as it wields what could be a weapon, the positioning of the hand, in its helplessness, conveys an insistence on victimhood—as my painter Eduardo put it, “he could be dead on the other end of it.” The circle in the center is a tambourine representing female sexuality, perhaps naming it as the impetus for this entire situation. But Lee Miller’s neck is the visual anchor for the piece, a glowing bridle for the more obscured objects in the background.
Although the objects exist in real life, the effect of painting them results in a sort of dream space typical to Surrealism, eschewing the prescribed reality of a photograph. While “home” in the title and the suggestion of staircase grounds the scene in Man Ray’s studio, the undefined background suggests more of a void—d’ailleurs, the deified “elsewhere.” The objectified female form is central to that desired state. The lure of ownership extends to romantic relationships—Man Ray told Miller he wanted her to “live as his wife,” not his artistic equal.
During their relationship, Miller played a literal art object in Jean Cocteau’s landmark film, Le Sang d’un Poète (Blood of a Poet)—a statue that the titular artist brings to life by painting a pair of red lips onto his hand and transferring them to her, bestowing the gift of expression. Cocteau was feuding with Breton at the time of the film’s delayed release in 1932, which led to a Surrealist boycott, but Man Ray had other reasons to hate the filmmaker—he perceived Cocteau as having “stolen” Lee away from him. Wasn’t it he who had first metaphorically painted on her mouth and bestowed the talent that now made her irresistible?
In 1932 Man Ray attempted to convey his sense of ownership over Miller’s body and talent in a fiery letter that appears to be a last-ditch effort to make her stay in Paris. He also wanted to distinguish his love as purer than that of his rival, Zizi Svirsky, a Russian socialite and Miller’s affair du jour:
Zizi will never help you get a serious following, his interest is not in your work and development, his interest is purely selfishly human. And he has infinite patience. Would you like to know how my attitude compares with his? I have loved you terrificly [sic], jealously; it has reduced every other passion in me, and to compensate, I have tried to justify this love by giving you every chance in my power to bring out everything interesting in you. The more you seemed capable the more my love was justified…
In Man Ray’s world, obsession was the same as devotion, and tossing the distinction of “capable” to his lover should be taken as the highest praise. Yet there is little reason to believe that Miller would have flourished more as an artist in the postwar years if they had stayed together. Man Ray’s longest relationship was with his wife, Juliet Man Ray, a dancer he met while they were both lonely in Los Angeles during World War II. The couple moved to Paris in 1951—she missed Los Angeles, didn’t speak French, and they occupied a dank studio that made her weep in disgust at first sight. But it was what Man Ray wanted, so it was what they did. If she ever had any intention of dancing again, there is no indication that she or Man Ray sought to nourish that former passion. But it was Juliet who held court at their favorite cafes in Paris while their friends came to pay their respects after Man Ray’s death, and it was Juliet who fought to preserve his legacy.
While Miller venerated Man Ray and other male artists throughout her life, she nevertheless expressed frustration at being cast as a perpetual object, sometimes in ways that were less than subtle. In 1930 she went so far as to photograph a severed breast from a mastectomy operation, displayed on a dinner plate: the disembodied feminine, ready to be consumed. (Man Ray’s proclivity toward “cutting up” the female form has even led to speculation that his work inspired the notorious 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder in Los Angeles.) When she arrived in New York in 1932 and a journalist mentioned her status as “one of the most photographed girls in Manhattan,” she plainly declared: “I would rather take a picture than be one.”
Yet “muse” remained Lee Miller’s most common designation until the 21st century. Her first complete retrospective as an artist was mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2008, and traveled to Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Paris. Nevertheless, she remains far more famous as a subject than as an artist, typical of how the Surrealist ethos at once idealized and infantilized women. This perception followed Miller into her 1947 marriage to Roland Penrose. In Whitney Chadwick’s 2017 book, Farewell to the Muse, the author recalls a somewhat shocking interaction with Penrose in 1982, five years after Miller’s death, when she told him she wanted to write about the overlooked women in the Surrealist circle.
Roland shook his head, kindly but firmly. “You shouldn’t write a book about the women …They weren’t artists…. Of course the women were important, but it was because they were our muses.”
While Miller’s importance as a source of artistic inspiration is undeniable, her work as an artist transcended Surrealist strictures and prejudices only after her death.
Man Ray’s attitude towards women was both objectifying and possessive. We see it in his relationship with Kiki de Montparnasse, which spanned most of the 1920s and made her the subject of some of his most famous photographs, including Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’ Violin, 1924) and Noire et Blanche (Black and White, 1926). At one point he discovered that she had obscured the names of all the female contacts in his address book. “I said nothing, but a warm feeling came over me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Kiki had been domesticated.” Kiki, a painter in her own right but mainly known as a model, muse, and bohemian icon, died in 1953 and was treated to a full chapter of reminiscence in Man Ray’s autobiography. Lee Miller is rarely mentioned, despite her otherwise well-documented effect on him, and he does not mention the violent episode of the painting. Could this be because he wrote it in 1963, while he was married to Juliet? Perhaps he could devote an entire chapter to Kiki de Montparnasse because she had already died, but at the time Miller was still living, and the Man Rays still made visits to the Sussex farmhouse that she shared with Roland Penrose.
Man Ray’s autobiography offers a few graphic stories that illustrate how far the Surrealists and their circle liked to push the expected roles and relationships of men and women. William Seabrook, notorious American writer, occultist, explorer, and occasional cannibal, asked Man Ray to look in on his mistress one night in 1930, whom he had bound like a dog and instructed to eat only from a plate on the floor—an extreme version of “domestication.” The woman, who wore only a loincloth, was not supposed to be unbound or be allowed to eat with her hands, but Man Ray and Miller released her so she could eat at the table with them before carefully tying her back up. “When we left [Lee] told me she had met a man who liked to whip women—it was nothing new for her,” he wrote. “Nor for me either, I thought; I had whipped women a couple of times, but not from any perverse motives.”
Man Ray had detailed one such instance of whipping a woman in one of the more disturbing passages of his autobiography. It occurred while he was separated from his first wife, the poet Adon Lacroix (known as Donna Lecoeur), but living in the same building in New York. According to Man Ray, this separation was caused by her affair with another man. One day, while Man Ray was sleeping off a hangover, she began relentlessly banging on his door, accusing him of being with another woman. He told her to go away, and that he would come to her apartment. When he did, he entered without knocking, and began hitting her with his belt until she fell face-down on the sofa. He didn’t ask what she had wanted, only saying she should tell her lover to come and see him about it. That meeting never occurred, and the matter was never revisited.
There isn’t any evidence that Ray and Miller’s relationship was physically violent, although they argued constantly. The violence here is in erasure. Antony Penrose, who has fond memories of Man Ray and benefited from his mentorship, remembers him and other male luminaries like painter and poet Max Ernst speaking of her accomplishments in a condescending way when he was a child. Antony’s relationship with his mother was already strained, to say the least—Miller was a combative alcoholic during his childhood who dismissed the trademarks of a traditional “mother” role. “Since the woman I saw before me was incapable of darning a sock, that view suited me,” he recalled in an interview in 1999. But after a cultivating a more positive relationship with her in adulthood and discovering her work after her death, Antony felt he had been “cheated out of knowing someone exceptional.”
In stark contrast to his attitude towards women, Man Ray’s approach to other artists’ creative property was relaxed. Even as a child, young Manny became resourceful in stealing tubes of paint to align himself with his heroes: “My conscience did not trouble me, as I felt I was doing this for a very noble cause.” At an artists’ colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey, founded by the painter Samuel Halpert in 1913, Man Ray recalled a small, gleaming black vase that Halpert had brought to the cabin they shared in order to paint it. He took his time, so one day, noticing “a perfect harmony of tones” between the vase, his quilt, and the resident black cat, Man Ray proceeded to make his own painting. “If [Halpert] should think I was imitating him or was influenced by him, he could only be flattered,” he reasoned. But Halpert’s reaction was similar, if more subdued, to Man Ray’s own reaction to Lee’s “theft” of Neck in 1930, considering the painting an act of piracy. “I apologized,” he wrote, “having never looked at it from that angle, but, after all, he hadn’t made the vase any more than the landscape before which we both sat a couple of weeks ago.” Halpert never painted the vase, but Ray doubled down on Neck.
The question remains of how just how much Miller and Man Ray shared—how can theft and ownership be attributed when many of their photos probably have the credits reversed, just by the nature of their partnership? Their soon-to-be iconic friends and inspirations were likewise mutual. For example, Miller idolized Claude Cahun (1894-1954), the lesbian Surrealist artist and activist with whom Ray worked during the 1920s. A series of Cahun’s photographs, shot in 1926, features a picture of the artist’s own face under a bell jar, more than thirty years before Sylvia Plath’s landmark novel about the stifling restraints of womanhood in the 20th century. Miller recreated this shot in 1930 with her friend Tanja Ramm, but instead of placing another photo under the bell jar, she staged Tanja’s head uncomfortably inside a table so she was physically situated under the glass.
Man Ray was almost certainly present during this shoot, because there is also a version of the photograph attributed to him, in which Ramm wears a blindfold. André Breton used the photograph in the October 1930 issue of Le Surrealisme au Service de la Révolution, as a tribute to the Marquis de Sade. In the context of the magazine’s hypersexualized content, the image suggested that women relish their own objectification. The warped meaning attributed to it must have been especially irritating to Miller, who was already painfully conscious of her own status as an object.
But there is no indication that Miller laid blame upon the male artists who objectified her. She never forgot that, as Man Ray’s assistant and close collaborator, she received an incomparable masterclass in the 20th century’s new hot medium. She was not prolific in her art-making, and unlike Man Ray, she refused to self-mythologize. Described by many—including herself—as lazy, she created what are now her most celebrated works in the 1930s and 1940s. But that was after her stint in New York after leaving Paris and Man Ray: while the Lee Miller Studio in Manhattan was successful and in high demand—partially because she branded herself as an ambassador of “the Man Ray school of photography,” much to his chagrin—Depression-era Americans did not have the same appetite for Surrealist work, and her more experimental endeavors waned. More memorable works include Surrealist photographs like Portrait of Space (1937), taken in the Egyptian desert, and her World War II photography—including the notorious photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub. She was the only female member of the press to witness combat up close, and one of the first people to set foot in the liberated Dachau concentration camp.
Her war experience left her with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol addiction, which took a toll on her legendary beauty. “I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils,” she recalled in 1977, shortly before she died. The late 1940s, after the war, were a turning point for her mental health. They coincided with the birth of her son, her settling in the English countryside away from the cities that had nourished her throughout her youth, and the creeping of midlife that took her legendary beauty. Art was still very much a part of her life, with famous artists visiting the farm all the time and their work adorning her house, but her own art making all but ceased. Ultimately, Miller found a creative outlet in cooking and entertaining visiting artist friends, and was happy to lend the Penroses’ extensive collection of Surrealist art to top museums while declining to let her own work be shown. As a woman who had constantly sought to define her own reality, the reality she created in her married life was one in which she didn’t have much talent at all.
Today, when self-advocacy is understood as crucial for women artists especially, Miller’s refusal to self-promote from middle age onward notably fails Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 feminist-adjacent call to “lean in.” The phrase hadn’t been coined when Judith Thurman profiled Lee Miller in the New Yorker in 2008, but her characterization of Miller smacks of that accusation. The profile, written as the first complete Miller retrospective was coming to Philadelphia, is bafflingly condescending at times, praising her work only faintly while holding the artist accountable, in a viselike grip, for her indiscretions. Nothing Thurman writes is untrue—Lee wrecked homes, dumped her employees, traded on her beauty, parented badly, and sometimes, while living in Egypt, peed in the street. Ultimately, Thurman decides, the emotional damage of Miller’s childhood trauma and her lack of work ethic prevented her from becoming truly great. Ironically, the piece concludes with a breathless paean to Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Lee Miller as L’Arlésienne (1937), which is afforded far greater praise than Miller’s work.
While Thurman is correct that Man Ray was a “generous mentor” in many ways, she describes him simply as “a leader of the avant-garde and a master of many genres,” while casting Miller as his ungrateful, undisciplined ward. Speculation about whether Miller would have been a more successful artist if she had been born later or pursued different relationships and mentors is largely useless, but let us suppose for a moment that most powerful artists hadn’t considered beauty to be her defining talent. Suppose the Surrealists walked the walk of their pro-women talk, instead of simultaneously worshiping, defiling, and objectifying women in their work and lashing out when they demanded the same sexual freedom as men. Suppose, in 2008, that a journalist had included even one sentence holding male artists accountable for their misogyny while castigating a female artist for her unruly life. Might we then release women like Lee Miller from their male counterparts’ long shadows?
The painting’s fraught history and murky palette furnish an appropriate degree of discomfort and nuance for our times, while its origin story, I believe, makes it the painting most exemplary of Surrealist attitudes and ideals. Not Salvador Dali’s melting clocks, not René Magritte’s apples and pipes, but this shadowy portrait of symbolically loaded possessions that includes, at their center, an elusive, disembodied woman.
What’s most interesting about Le Logis de l’Artiste in the 21st century is that the backstory doesn’t harm the painting’s reputation—with the benefit of historical distance, it has made the painting’s reputation. The dimension it provides to Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship makes it an important piece, even though as a work of art it is eclipsed by Man Ray’s more popular works. The context doesn’t dull the story—it is the story.
Miller almost certainly received no apology from Man Ray for the events that created Logis—as Antony Penrose told me, Man Ray “would not have been capable of seeing he had done anything wrong, let alone wanting to make amends.” But a strong bond remained between them, and Man Ray continued to give and sell his work to Miller and Roland Penrose for the rest of his life, including an object called Consoler for Lee Miller (If She Needs One) (1974). It is a cigar box with a fish-eye lens at the end, providing a simultaneously narrow and expansive view of the world—the Surrealist d’ailleurs, distorting reality just enough to be fantastic. Antony wrote about the meaning of the Consoler in relation to Miller and Man Ray’s enduring friendship:
I think what Man meant was that if she didn’t like what she saw in her life, peeping through the lens of his Consoler might give her troubles a different perspective and help her get through them. Right to the end, he loved her; he understood her and cherished her friendship in his own particularly intense way. And she held the same feeling for him. That has given me the unshakable belief that love is a thing of the heart and endures forever, and is not just about being fascinating and attractive while young.
If Le Logis de l’Artiste is the uncomfortable painting that our times deserve, it’s the Consoler that convinced me finally to hang my reproduction in my home. After he’d dissected Lee’s body in his work, Man Ray’s Consoler deifies her eye in a new way—not for how it opens a new gateway to the subconscious for him, in the Surrealist tradition, but for what it can see for itself. It’s doubtful that he was thinking this when he gave it to her, for the same reason that it’s unlikely he ever apologized for the painting incident. But the story behind this piece shows how “separating the artist from his art” can rob us of a greater insight to an artist’s process, flaws, and ideas of self-worth. If paintings must carry asterisks, let them reveal a greater truth, even the uncomfortable ones.