Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain to 7th October 2018
Surrealism remains ever popular, and in that respect it is satisfying that an exhibition has been mounted which focuses on some of its lesser known practitioners. Everybody’s heard of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and perhaps even Man Ray. Fewer (outside of art circles) will be familiar with the name of Roger Penrose, although one or two of his images may stir a memory. But Lee Miller? A woman? The Hepworth is putting the record straight.
Miller was an accomplished photographer with an eye for the unusual, finding as it were surrealism in everyday images. Perhaps her most famous photograph is not one she took on her own but in collaboration with David E. Scherman, ‘Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub.’ Taken in Hitler’s apartment in Munich in 1945 – on the day of the announcement of Hitler’s suicide – it is a composition which reminds us that even Fuhrers have domestic lives. It is perhaps a little hard to believe the banality of it, this could be the kind of crampt bathroom one might expect to find in a two star hotel. And did Hitler really have a photograph of himself in the corner, along with a classical nude statuette on the table? What was going on here? What exactly did he do in the bath? Both elements were probably taken from elsewhere in the apartment in order for Miller to locate the picture. It is hard to read from the expression on Miller’s face whether being in Hitler’s bathtub was a pleasant experience.
It is notable how surrealism of the inter-war period used classical nude representation as a motif in so much work. Men’s work. Breasts are two a penny. Interesting then that Miller should have taken a picture or two of severed breasts. Untitled (Severed Breasts from Radical Surgery in a Place Setting 1 and 2) is one hell of a statement – if that’s what it is – on the male surrealists’ breast fantasising. In black and white it loses none of its shocking reality – at first one thinks one is looking at a slice of steak pie, the shrivelled nipple on top perhaps being one of those pastry adornments one might find in a traditional pastry pie. Contrast that with Roland Penrose’s The Last Voyage of Captain Cook, which has a classical female torso trapped in a spherical wire cage – representing the world – with an old bladeless saw handle resting on the plinth. The symbolism here is obvious (at least I think it should be so) but it is certainly not shocking. Penrose’s Octavia, a torsoless red-head doing a hand stand, her hair chained to the ground, is in the same vein.
This focus on breasts must be at the core of the surrealists’ Freudian dreams. I wonder how, once again, a photo by Miller comments unfavourably on this phenomenon. There’s a picture of hers, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, which has the fully clothed Ernst grasping the semi-naked Carrington’s breasts. I am sure that if this picture was published in 1937, it would have been scandalous – just another example of the louche, decadent behaviour of avant garde types when everybody else is worrying about the behaviour of that Munich bathtub’s previous occupant. It is hard to say whether Carrington is deriving any pleasure from Ernst’s oversized hands’ roving fondle.
But war was in the air. Miller’s On the Road (1938) shows a bovine beast in a wicker cart on its way somewhere – to the market, from the market, who knows – it looks like it’s almost decapitated, it is at least discomfited by the journey. One imagines that not long behind the cart, there would have been many more, as refugees trudged into their unknowable future.
I forget who said it, but the fact is if you want to take a good photograph, you have to get close up. Miller certainly does that.
Anthony McCall Solid Light Works to 3rd June 2018 Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield
The opening night of this exhibition was so jam packed it was impossible to get a decent view of what was on offer, so a return visit will be necessary. But a cursory examination quickly revealed that the exhibition was about drawing, and the solidity but transient nature of lines. Lines are defining things but here nothing was being defined but the line itself, set against nothingness, or in the case of the projected light installations, blackness. This all sounds a bit Zen-like, and I think – without ever having come across McCall’s work before – that it easily fits that way of seeing. In the chaos of rooms too full of people, some no doubt fired up with a glass or two of wine, the reaction of the audience literally overshadowed the projections. On occasion it was impossible to see the projections as people flitted in front of the projector like fluttering moths. This level of attention could only have the effect of reducing the spectacle to that of a disco light show, not something to quietly contemplate and absorb. Well maybe that’s just an opening night problem in Wakefield, well known for its night scene.