Lee Miller’s insightful photos of Pablo Picasso

IT IS 1 September, 1944, the day after the Allied forces liberated Paris.

IT IS 1 September, 1944, the day after the Allied forces liberated Paris.

Picasso opens his studio door on Rue des Grand Augustins to find Lee Miller, a friend from years before, in uniform as a war photographer with the US Army. Neither has seen the other for years. The picture tells the story: the two smile affectionately at each other, delighted to find one another alive and well amid the horrors of war.

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“They’d both lived through their own separate version of hell for the previous five years,” says Tony Penrose, Miller’s son. “Under Nazi occupation, people were constantly in fear of their lives. They watched their friends being disappeared, Jewish friends or anybody that was considered to be a dissident. Neither Lee or Picasso knew if the other was still alive.”

The friendship between the photographer and the artist is told in a new exhibition, Lee Miller And Picasso, opening next week at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Over 35 years, Miller took more than 1,000 photographs of Picasso which are now part of the Lee Miller Archive, of which Penrose is director. They tell Picasso’s story, but Miller’s is there too, behind the lens.

The friendship began in the summer of 1937 when Miller and Roland Penrose, the British surrealist painter who would become her husband, joined a gathering of artists in the village of Mougins in the south of France. The company at the Hotel Vaste Horizon included Picasso and his lover, Dora Maar, Paul Éluard and his wife Nusch, and Man Ray, for whom Miller had been studio assistant, muse and lover several years before. Picasso’s famously roving eye no doubt alighted on Miller, a cover girl for American Vogue in the 1920s before becoming a photographer. He painted a series of six portraits of her, one of which, Portrait Of Lee Miller As L’Arlesienne, will be part of the exhibition.

Tony Penrose says: “They may have been lovers, I’ve got no proof of that, except that they all shared each other willingly. It was just part of their wonderfully bohemian way of doing things – surrealism was much more than an art movement, it was a way of life. It was a fantastic moment in all their lives. Just a few weeks before coming to the south of France, Picasso had finished painting Guernica. At the back of their minds, they were probably realising that this was the last dance: war and the rise of fascism was coming.”

Elizabeth Cowling, author of Visiting Picasso, about the relationship between Roland Penrose and the artist, is intrigued by the portraits of Miller as l’Arlesienne. “They’re very jokey pictures, very vivid and amusing. Lee Miller was astonishingly beautiful, and she was always photographed as a divine beauty, whether she was modelling for Vogue or in the nude for Man Ray. Those paintings by Picasso show her as an amusing, witty, chatty person – which she was. It seems to me that he took her off her pedestal, and it must have been wonderful for her to have somebody penetrate that façade and show her as a real person.”

If Picasso was perceptive in his depiction of Miller, she was equally so in her photographs of him. Cowling says: “A lot of them are very shrewd. There’s a famous picture where he’s turning round and staring straight at you, that rather terrifying stare which felled a lot of people. She caught that, but she’s not abject in front of him. You get the sense of somebody assessing the person she’s actually depicting.”

Anne Lyden, international photography curator at National Galleries of Scotland, says one of the aims of the exhibition is to offer insights into these well-known figures as real people. Miller’s pictures show Picasso cooking meat on a barbecue, playing with his children and choosing work for his 1960 exhibition at the Tate. “People like Picasso are elevated to an almost god-like status, it’s strange to think about them as people going about their daily life. He, Miller and Penrose were all incredibly important in their own right. We know what they’ve contributed to art history, but this lets us look behind the scenes.”

Miller photographed Picasso for the next 30 years, until his death in 1973. In 1949, she, Penrose and two-year-old Tony were back in the south of France with Picasso and his new partner, Françoise Gilot. Picasso then visited them twice at their home, Farley Farm, in East Sussex, the following year. Tony Penrose says: “He was the most fun person for a small boy to be around, he was always inventing games and fooling about. He was just the most perfect uncle figure to have in my life.”

But life was far from idyllic at Farley Farm. Miller was a distant figure, suffering from alcoholism, depression and – Tony Penrose now believes – post traumatic stress disorder, after her war-time experiences, which included photographing the liberation of concentration camps. Growing up, he knew nothing about his mother’s life as a professional photographer. She packed her pictures and war diaries into the boxes in the attic which were only discovered after her death in 1977. “It was the most incredible revelation to all of us. When we started putting the story together, we were astonished, we had to keep checking to make sure we hadn’t got the wrong idea because the truth was stranger than fiction.”

But Miller did not put away her camera completely. She continued to photograph the artists Roland Penrose worked with through the Institute for Contemporary Arts, which he founded, and the Arts Council. When he was commissioned to write Picasso’s biography, she took photographs to accompany his work. Tony Penrose believes her presence eased what was at times a strained working relationship. “There was always an exhibition or a book or another big project, so whenever Roland went to see Picasso, he would have a load of questions. But when Lee was around, she had no agenda at all, she could just kick back and goof around and make American wisecracks, and also be a good friend to whichever woman happened to be in Picasso’s life at the time. That was her gift, in a way, to both Roland and Picasso because it smoothed things along.”

Miller was in no doubt about her husband’s adoration for the artist. Capable of acerbic wit, she once described herself as a “Picasso widow”. However, Cowling believes that it also helped to cement their marriage. “It was a binding mechanism for her and Roland, because their marriage was often quite strained because of affairs of one sort of another. This was a way of them both being together on common ground and sharing something.”

While Picasso was much photographed, Miller was able to capture extraordinary images of the artist because of their friendship. “There were many people who photographed Picasso, and but what makes Lee’s distinctive is the intimacy of them,” says Tony Penrose. “He’s not thinking of her as a photographer taking his picture, she’s a friend taking his picture.”

Cowling believes there is another reason the pictures are extraordinary: Miller and Picasso shared an understanding of what it meant to be photographed, how an individual could harness the power of the lens and make it work for them. “Picasso knew what the camera could do and, like any Hollywood actress, he knew how to present himself, when he looked at his most forceful and charismatic. Lee Miller had been on the other side of the camera so much she knew how a person can act in front of the camera and appear to be different from what they really are. On that level, I think they understood each other very well.” n

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Lee Miller And Picasso is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, from 23 May until 6 September, www.nationalgalleries.org