Art review: Lee Miller and Picasso, Edinburgh

A few weeks ago a painting by Picasso sold for $179 million. It is an astonishing amount of money, but it is also quite meaningless. The picture in question is not even a very good Picasso. It’s a rather formulaic work from 1955 when celebrity, tempting him to show off, occasionally dimmed his creativity.

Pablo Picasso and Lee Miller after the liberation of Paris. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.
Pablo Picasso and Lee Miller after the liberation of Paris. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller and Picasso

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

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But then in this mad-money world it no longer matters if the art is good or bad, only that it is expensive; and that skews all our values. When crazy prices are paid for art by the stratospherically rich, we no longer see the art, nor I think does the buyer. We only see the money: so everything has a price and price is the only measure of value. Art has until now always been a vehicle for the articulation of the other more important values that we live by. If they are squeezed out by money, we are all diminished. How refreshing then that Lee Miller and Picasso at the SNPG gives us back Picasso the man among his friends and family.

Picasso’s portrait of Miller is in the show and, in contrast to that recent crazy price, when in 1937 Roland Penrose bought the painting, he paid the artist £50. It was quite a lot of money then, about as much as would buy a car, but nevertheless a sum that we can at least conceive of as relating both to Picasso’s needs and Penrose’s means and so still in touch with everyday reality. It is a good painting and is also evidently even a likeness for all its strangeness. Penrose and Miller later married (both married to other people and with the war intervening, it took ten years) and Penrose recorded how, when he showed the picture to their two year old son, Anthony, “his instant cry of delight was ‘Mummy! Mummy!’”

Penrose and Miller became close friends of Picasso and the exhibition records their friendship in her photographs. (There are just two paintings by Picasso in the show, Miller’s portrait and the National Gallery’s own extraordinary Homme et Femme.) She was a gifted photographer and in practically every picture, Picasso’s extraordinary vitality shines through. Strikingly beautiful, she had begun her career as a fashion model. Moving to Paris she met up with fellow American and Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Learning from him, she graduated from being his model and mistress to become a professional photographer herself and returned to New York to set up a studio. Then after a brief period in Egypt, she returned to Paris. There, in 1937, she met Penrose. An artist himself, he had become one of the principal British champions of Surrealism and had been closely involved with the first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936. In the summer of 1937, Penrose took Miller to the South of France where they joined Picasso and a group of Surrealist friends for days on the beach and topless picnics beneath the trees reenacting Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. It is a sunlit, pre-war world, but a shadow already lay over it. The Spanish Civil War was raging. Picasso had just finished Guernica, condemning the brutality of the Fascists and the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of that name, and it was on display in the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition in Paris. Perhaps it is that shadow that clouds Picasso’s face as he stands to be photographed, frowning darkly although surrounded by three beautiful women, Miller herself and two others.

World war followed two years later. Penrose served as a captain in the army and Miller became war correspondent for Vogue. She recorded the Blitz, but then crossed to France with the Allied armies in the invasion of Normandy. Confounding stereotypes, but nevertheless somehow wonderfully apt as well as testimony to her courage, a former model she became the only woman photo-journalist to be embedded with the Allied forces. There is a picture of her in June 1944 in battledress and helmet with a group of GIs on a pile of rubble at the siege of St Malo. Then she entered Paris with the liberating forces and finding herself near his studio astonished Picasso by turning up at his door: “This is incredible. The first allied soldier I should see is a woman and it is you!” One of the most memorable of many memorable images here records that reunion. Picasso embraces Miller. She is in uniform and is half a head taller than him.

Part of the fascination of these pictures is seeing Picasso surrounded by his work. In Paris in 1944 food was scarce. He had grown tomatoes on his windowsill and so she photographs him standing by his tomato plant with a painting of it on the floor beside him. Penrose in uniform joined Miler in Paris briefly and she photographed him with Paul Éluard, the poet whose Resistance poetry he had helped publish and which at great risk to the poet had been dropped by the RAF in leaflets over France. Others had been in hiding and like Louis Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet had fought with the Resistance. There were other reunions and celebrations which Miller records: flags hanging out, or Picasso in a march to commemorate those who could not be commemorated under the Nazis, but she also reminds us that the war was still not far away with a picture of an American anti-aircraft battery near Picasso’s apartment. She then went on with the Allies into Germany where at the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau she witnessed scenes that haunted her ever after. In a famous image taken by her colleague, David Sherman, she washed off the dust of war in a bathtub in a flat in Munich that had once been Hitler’s. Occasional terse telegrams from third parties reported on her well-being to an anxious Penrose.

Picasso changed partners from Dora Maar, also a Surrealist photographer and his companion from 1936 to 1945, to Françoise Gilot. Miller photographed Maar both before the war and after when she was alone and looking rather sad. Françoise Gilot became mother of Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949 and named after the dove of peace. There are charming pictures of the children with both parents. In 1950, Picasso visited England for a peace conference. It collapsed, however, and he retreated to the Penroses’ Sussex farm, a visit which provided the occasion for several delightfully informal pictures. Back in Paris, Miller witnessed the touching reunion of Picasso with his old friend Braque and more improbably a visit from Gary Cooper.

Penrose wrote a biography of Picasso, the first in English. Miller provided a superb portrait for the book, but also more informally recorded Penrose standing anxiously beside the artist as he reads something he has written. She also records, too, occasions when more formal business was being done. Picasso liked to disconcert visitors he didn’t know by dressing up and so appears in several pictures as a clown, or with giant Groucho moustache and spectacles. Throughout, Miller records the artist at ease in his studio and among his life. His third wife and the partner of his final years was Jacqueline Roque. A touching picture from 1970 shows them sitting close together. As she turns to the photographer, she shows off the classical profile whose beauty inspired Picasso to paint her more than 400 times. It is the intimacy of pictures like this which give this show such appeal. It reminds us too how far that $179 million is from anything that really matters about art, the artist, or indeed about life itself.

Until 6 September