I've had Lee Miller on the mind. I'd come across her a while ago as a surrealist model and I knew she was a war reporter through the fashion magazine Vogue (yes, you read that right). She sounds fun and fiercely admirable, I thought.
[IMAGE Self portrait with headband, Lee Miller Studios, Inc., New York, USA c.1932 by Lee Miller [12-1-Cv1] Copyright Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk]
On a different train of thought I've been stumbling over more and more links to the political discourse of the late 1920s/early 30s. I'm sure I don't need to point out the historical echoes of some of the political slogans, rightwing headlines and diplomatic incidents we've seen in the last decade on both sides of the pond. Oswald Mosley could almost say something about bloody rivers and it get a weary satirical facepalm and on to the next week's regressions.
Great Lives is a radio series I dip in and out of: an enthusiast comes on to talk about a person they admire with an expert. Lee Miller was the subject the day of the General Election results. She was nominated by Channel 4 News’ Lindsey Hilsum and witnessed by her son who gave an impressively realist reading of his complicated surrealist mother. It's still pinging around my head, and I think (beyond the basic fem-crush for a freethinking lady in a man's world) that it's because she photographed herself in Hitler's bathtub. The day he shot himself and just hours after she returned from Dachau concentration camp.
Here is where I intended to insert said photograph, but I had a thought-provoking discussion with the Lee Miller Archive when I approached them for copyright permission: they control the distribution of Miller’s photographs (rightly, as they are intellectual property) but they take particular care over her World War 2 collection and most especially this and any other image containing Adolf Hitler. Another blog post will be about complicated intellectual rights for art images, but the high fee and necessity to submit my blog draft for their approval actually warmed my heart. It’s proof of the power of the visual image in public discourse, and how reassuring that steps are taken to ensure that Miller's output cannot used to promote the ideologies she worked to undermine. The Lee Miller Archive have instead permitted me to use the portrait of Lee Miller free of charge, for which I thank them. Please click here to see the Hitler bathtub photograph on their website so that the rest of this blog makes sense!
Miller and her photojournalist colleague David E. Scherman carefully laid out the shot. Hitler's portrait is balanced on the edge of the bath; the idealised female nude statue overlooks the naked lady in the tub with Hitler over her shoulder, her hand on her head in a way that pricks feelings of bemusement and the universally human What The F*** response; and the mud trodden in from Dachau over The Fuhrer's white bathmat. Miller looks up and out of frame, appearing untraumatised by the warcrimes she's just witnessed.
What's going on? Is this funny? Is this furious? Is this sacrilege? Is this goading? Is this too cosy with The Big Man? Is this bravely savage? What's the appropriate response to this image?
I'm drafting this blog post just after Trump inserted his primed missile (not a euphemism... ok a bit of a euphemism) into Iran and is currently leaving us trying to understand the validity of trending #worldwar3. [sic: it subsequently calmed down. For now.] This is not a direct parallel to Hitler's actions. I raise it because it feels like a history lesson. Right now it feels very unlikely that nuclear weapons will be brandished, it feels fairly likely that the Middle East will have fresh fuel for unrest and wars, global peril's something that happens to other generations, the world works differently to Cold War days, don't be hysterical.
Bemused uncertainties must have been in the minds of Miller's contemporaries shortly before, for example, she found herself the only journalist inside German occupied St Malo during its American bombardment at a time when the total of four female war photojournalists were banned from the front line. I'm glad I can't relate to the thoughts swirling around when the concentration camps were liberated and it became evident that the worst case scenario had indeed happened, and was being designed and perpetrated when British royalty and aristocracy were guests of Hitler and the first wave of Jews were heading off the continent to relatives and connections.
Bemusement. Bafflement. Which way will this go? How will 2020's political events be documented and digested? I've decided that my main response to the Hitler-bathtub-photo is love. I love that Scherman and Miller filed their reports, and with images of emaciated Jews still in the can decided to use their artistic sensibilities to create a photo with no tangible current affairs cache. I think the force of Miller's background - as a surrealist muse and under-accredited artist, raped and gonorrhea-infected child, rejector of monogamy, aesthetically honed creator turned frontline journalist among ruins and carnage - instilled in her an instinct to process through imagery. An instinct to jump outrageously into a fascist's tub because it could shock and leave an impression, because it pricks a tyrant's legacy.
The message to take? Don't think there is one message. But I do think that Lee Miller can remind us of the power of using our eyes, of taking a risk and creating art right through the middle of real life globally significant events. Art can catch the eye in a different way to journalism, trip up our train of thought and make us work out that we are bemused by what we're seeing and spend time trying to think through why.
The Lee Miller Archive, www.leemiller.co.uk/
'Great Lives', www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000c4qc
Imperial War Museum, www.iwm.org.uk/history/lee-millers-second-world-war