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A Bargain with the Light at the Hepworth

Updated: May 11, 2019

Since ‘A Bargain with the Light’ was published last year, I’ve become aware that events, talks, publications are happening with astonishing frequency. I was very excited to be invited to the Hepworth Wakefield to do a reading from my book and a Q&A in one of galleries displaying Miller’s work. I had never visited the gallery before and was keen to explore Hepworth’s work as well as seeing the Lee Miller exhibit.

The building, designed by Sir David Chipperfield, coming into view amid a network of main arteries into and round the town itself, embodies a kind of immense and grim beauty with its geometric shapes, Inside, the galleries are generous, light-filled and in fact designed for housing ‘The Gift’, some of Hepworth’s monumental sculptures, most of which are models for the actual bronzes that followed. This is a perfect context, I thought to myself as I wandered through, to curate an exhibition about Lee Miller: like Miller, Hepworth was a woman who refused to conform both in her personal life and her approach to her art. In fact Hepworth was born in 1903 and Miller in 1907, although their trajectories were very different. I wonder if they ever met; it seems that Lee Miller brushed shoulders with almost all the artists and writers of note in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

‘Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain’ mostly includes works from the 20s, 30s and 40s includes a number of pieces by Man Ray, Miller’s teacher and lover in her early adulthood as well as paintings by Roland Penrose, Miller’s second husband, and works by a number of minor British surrealists. It puts Lee Miller firmly into a temporal and cultural context and demonstrates the way that both she and Penrose helped to build a home and reputation for the surrealist movement.

As ever, the images and artworks that really shine are Miller’s own. After two rooms of mostly works by other artists, I found myself entering a space that was filled with Miller’s photographs. I had seen most of these before, yet the impact of experiencing them all together, mounted and juxtaposed, was still shattering to me. I increasingly feel that almost all of Miller’s practice was in some way imbued with her experience of early trauma. She was raped aged seven by an unnamed ‘family friend’ and as a result contracted gonorrhoea, a condition that was treatable but not curable at that time. It is probable that, as a result of this, Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for most of her life. One of the symptoms of PTSD, as I understand it, is an ability to dissociate: thus you find in most of her photographs, from her early fashion shoots and nudes to her later images of the horrors at Dachau and Buchenwald, a determination to get in close to the subject. Whilst other photographers might keep their distance, she persistently and patiently provides us with a direct and immediate view. In my book, I focus on the way that early trauma infected and affected almost everything she did in her life; ironically it was that ability to dissociate that got her through the final days of war at St Malo, enabled her take photographs of the true horrors of the concentration camps and the child victims of malnutrition after the war.

Every time I see photographs by or of Miller (and there are many) I wish I could write another book about her, because each image could yield a poem. There’s one in the exhibition that is tells us so much about Miller’s life narrative and the objectifying culture of the times. She was living in a sort of ménage a trois with Roland Penrose, who was a camouflage instructor to British forces, and her long-time colleague David Scherman. Together, the two men composed a photograph of Miller nude and apparently dead under some netting. They painted her skin with green camouflage paint. Apparently this came in handy to keep the attention of soldiers in training.  Another interesting discovery I made was that there is more than one photograph of Miller in Hitler’s bath; in fact the one in my book is different in a few small ways to the one exhibition. How strange it was to stand in front of the photograph and compare it with the one I know so well.

It was an honour and pleasure to read the sequence of poems in a space surrounded by Miller’s own works. I felt I was able to add to the biographical material of the exhibition, coming at Miller’s life from a perhaps more personal angle. The audience were different to my previous audiences in the sense that they already knew a lot about Miller from the exhibition. However, there is no mention of the childhood rape in the exhibition itself, and there was considerable discussion during the Q&A about how difficult it is to talk about such things and bring them out into the open. It was generally felt that having this piece of information deepened the appreciation and understanding of Miller’s work. As ever, I felt throughout as if I was there representing (or even channelling) Lee Miller; she never really wrote about her life or her process, unlike Barbara Hepworth, yet both of them were towering, courageous figures, determined to  think big: iconoclastic artists in a man’s world.

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