When War Photographer Lee Miller Met Pablo Picasso

Submitted by Jean West on Wed, 13 May '15 11.22am

He made her his muse and the subject of his erotic art and was fast friends with her husband, the man who championed his work for decades in Britain.

But could Lee Miller, model and one of the world’s most famous female war photographers, have been more than just friends with Pablo Picasso?

That is the question posed by her son and archivist, Tony Penrose, who has been working with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on a major new summer show about the pair that starts later this month.

When Miller met the famous Cubist painter she was already in love with Roland Penrose, the Surrealist curator she later married, after a tempestuous relationship with photographer and artist Man Ray, still grief-stricken after their split.

Roland Penrose tirelessly promoted Picasso’s work around Britain – including the now revered masterpiece Guernica – at a time when it was seen as obnoxious rubbish by prevailing artistic taste.

Roland Penrose had just met Miller, and the couple holidayed in Mougins, Picasso’s inspirational bolt-hole in the South of France, with a whole pack of Bohemian creatives including Dora Mar, (Picasso’s lover at that time), Paul and Nusch Éluard, Eileen Agar, Man Ray and his new lover Ady Fidelin.

It was during the weeks of this enchanting holiday that Picasso painted a series of six works of the eccentric and uncompromising Miller, dressed in the costume of a woman from Arles.

The series of portraits is known as Lee Miller as L’Arlesienne. She in turn was to picture him more than a thousand times.

Said Penrose: “I have every reason to suspect that they were more than just friends. Part of this is driven by an understanding of the behaviour of the group they belonged to. They all acted in a very Liberal manner when it came to sexuality. It was clear currency at the time.”

Penrose says his father would have been accepting about Miller’s relationship with Picasso. “They had made up their minds, all of them in that group that they were not going to be bound by usual convention or driven by jealousy.”

Miller’s keen intellect would have been attractive to the artist, maintains her son: “Picasso definitely had a very great affection for her that went way beyond just fancying her. He was a highly intelligent person himself, and one of the things he valued in women was intelligence.”

He added: “The time they were together in 1937 was a great celebration of freedom. The Spanish Civil War was raging and everyone knew the whole of Europe would be engulfed in conflict.

“The images of the group on the Cote D’Azur in those days really highlight this sense of having the last fling. Also, for me the clue about Picasso’s feelings for my mother is evident in L’Arlesienne paintings, and references a well-known story by Alphonse Daudet about a woman from Arles whose sexuality was so overwhelming it proved fatal for her lover.

“The version with its pink background is an important clue. Others with far greater knowledge of this period who I have interviewed share my view that in this liberal atmosphere Lee Miller and Picasso may well have been just one more of the many temporary pairings.”

The unique exhibition will include 100 photographs from the Lee Miller Archives, along with Picasso’s painting of Lee Miller as L’Arlesienne and images of her by others.

The painting says Penrose is rich and fearless, portraying the photographer’s warmth of personality and brilliance of intellect with her sunshine yellow face, cupid bow lips and big toothy grin. The background is a deeply seductive pink.

Miller was born in Poughkeepsie, New York state in 1907, and after being discovered by the magazine magnate, Conde Naste, whilst still a teenager she soon became an internationally famous Vogue model.

But in 1929 she determined to put her attention behind the lens and landed on the doorstep of photographer and artist Man Ray in Paris.

Her feistiness persuaded him to allow her to apprentice as his student and together they evolved solarisation, a new technique that transposed the light behind the image with a negative effect.

It is likely that she first met Picasso in the French capital during these years as he was a friend of Surrealists she knew well including Ray, Éluard and Max Ernst.

Included in the show are intimate snapshots on the beaches of the south of France in the late 1930s and memorable images of Picasso’s famous visit to Britain in 1950, when he stayed with Miller and Penrose at their Sussex farm.

It also features a touching photograph taken on the Liberation of Paris in 1944 when Miller, a war photographer with the US forces, was reunited with Picasso. It is one many images in the exhibition to capture the artist amidst the chaos of his studio.

Miller continued to make regular visits to Picasso until the early 1970s, and her studio shots offer a fascinating insight into the working methods of this restlessly creative genius.

Penrose points to a metronome shape at the centre of the L’Arlesienne painting in the place of Miller’s heart. It alludes to a work by Man Ray: “I can imagine Picasso sitting on the beach in the south of France with Man Ray and saying to him, ‘remember when you got so mad at Lee you made your metronome object with a photo of Lee’s eye on the pendulum?’ They would have had a good laugh and then Picasso would go to his room, which doubled as a studio and include the metronome shape in the chest as if it were her heart.”

But Miller’s adventures in love did not it seems qualify her for guiding others – even her son. Said Penrose: “As a kid, when I was having my agonies after being dumped by my first girlfriend, she would just say: ‘if you are hurt because you fall in love with another, that’s a self-inflicted injury,’ and tell me to deal with it.”

Lee Miller and Picasso runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 23 May to 6 September, £9/£7

Photo: Pablo Picasso and Lee Miller after the Liberation of Paris (1944) - Copyright Lee Miller Archives.