Exhibition Review: Lee Miller - A Woman's War.

Exhibition Review: Lee Miller - A Woman's War.

Words: Nataša Cordeaux

Through over 150 images, installations, and secret correspondence, the Imperial War Museum invites us until 24th April 2016 to gaze upon the phenomenal life and work of Lee Miller, and to travel with her on a photographic journey that follows the previously unseen war-time women...

Lee Miller, Egypt 1935 by Unknown Photographer © Lee Miller Archives, England 2014

Lee Miller, Egypt 1935 by Unknown Photographer © Lee Miller Archives, England 2014

Elizabeth (‘Lee’) Miller (1907-1977) is undisputedly one of the most important twentieth century war photographers. A remarkable woman and journalist; she pushed the boundaries of convention; she captured World War Two through the lens in the most nuanced, tragic and fantastically authentic manner. She framed the war; she brought reality to Vogue and she brought our generation to the stories of women, who would have otherwise been left unwritten.

The current exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum is an archive of not only Miller, but also the evolving role and lives of women across Europe and beyond. Each image we look upon unfolds this world of war-time women, where we finally see the stories of the Polish sister flying a Spitfire, the Parisian law student with her half-full pint amongst bullet-shattered windows, and the accused and shamed, shaven-headed woman under accusation of conspiring with the Germans...

What’s particularly noteworthy in this exhibition is how the IWM reveals Miller’s commitment to telling these women’s narratives. The exhibition is somehow authentically human, despite her extraordinariness. As you walk through the space, the walls hold Lee’s witness to war, her inner-turmoil, the anxiety and tears, the sense of lost, the imprints of war - Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, her alcoholism… but all alongside her honesty, rambling writing, obsession with fashion, her stubbornness, sexuality and various celebrity exploits. Somehow, through the roundness of her, her voice and her perspective, you find can’t help but identify with her, feel something for her…

I knew the minute I hit Salzburg that it was a mistake to try the Balkans… but I was too stubborn to admit it. Now I’ve lost practically everything…
— Fragment of a Letter to Roland 1945, Lee Miller.
Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944. Lee Miller, all rights reserved.

Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France 1944. Lee Miller, all rights reserved.

When I first discovered Lee Miller, I was a teenage girl, coming down to London with her mother to celebrate her sixteenth birthday. I remember savouring her decadent photographic contributions to fashion, the images of backless dresses, the style, her being ‘British Vogue’. It wasn’t until I began to wander around the V&A that I truly began to see how much more she was, to learn how much more a woman could be. Not only was she an editor, she had been a war correspondent, a fighter of equality, a testament to female talent and overcoming all odds. I could not shake the power, the bravery and I would say balls, but rather, let’s say the ovaries, she had to bathe her naked self, washing in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler. And to then, photograph it. She was a woman who crossed the line, redrew the line and inspired the men of the time – Picasso drew her, lovers made films, photographs, they all wanted to somehow capture a life which was beyond what we can imagine. This is epitomised in the art of Roland Penrose, part of the IWM exhibition, who constantly tried to capture her complexity, the different shades and personalities of Lee Miller.

When Picasso met Lee Miller. Taken after the liberation of Paris © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. 

When Picasso met Lee Miller. Taken after the liberation of Paris © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. 

Whether she would have known it or not, she’s become more than an inspiration to women, more than a testament to our abilities (which should not need to still be testified), but she is a legacy. And it is on this note, that I’d like to finish with what I found most surprising to discover - despite herself, during her lifetime she rarely spoke of her wartime career, she moved to cookery and it wasn’t until her death in 1977 that her son discovered her work, sheltered in the shadows on their family home attic.

Tony Penrose looks upon his mother, photographed in Adolf Hitler's bathtub, 1945 - David E Scherman.

Tony Penrose looks upon his mother, photographed in Adolf Hitler's bathtub, 1945 - David E Scherman.

I’d like to personally thank her son, Tony Penrose, for bringing the woman out of the attic. 


Check out this Guardian interview with Tony Penrose - 'The Mother I Never Knew'.
Here for more information on the exhibition and ticket prices.
If not, wait for the documentary on Lee Miller to come out - starring Kate Winslet!

 

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