The surrealistic eye of Lee Miller

Not many women can attest to having taken a self-portrait while sitting in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub. Such visual dichotomies abound in the audacious survey, Surrealist Lee Miller, presented at Heide Museum of Modern Art. The largest exhibition of Miller’s work shown in Australia in over 30 years, it centres the artist as a photographer with a uniquely unconventional eye.

Historic and dream-like in scope, the images on display remember Miller (1907-1977) as both an incisive World War II war correspondent, Vogue photographer, and fashion model with the eye of a surrealist artist.

Miller’s viewfinder renders aspects of 20th century history that are both so fabulous and so harrowing as to be comfortably homed in our current disjuncture. Her images gouge through the fripperies of high fashion while stoically documenting the devastations of war.

Citing Lee’s “lifelong commitment to honesty and integrity”, Kendrah Morgan, head curator at Heide, attributes Miller’s success to a habit of “rising to the occasion under challenging circumstances, using her surrealist eye to bring a strong artistic edge”. Morgan adds, “She knew from the inside what people wanted to see on the outside.”

Charlie Chaplin with light fixture, St Moritz, Switzerland 1932 by Lee Miller (NC0203) © Lee Miller Archives England 2023. All Rights Reserved.

The show is curated from a vast archive of 60,000 negatives posthumously discovered in Miller’s attic in the 1970s by her son Antony Penrose, who Morgan cites as “absolutely instrumental in getting Lee Miller the acknowledgement that she deserves”. As the curator explains, “From about the mid-50s, there were people wanting to look at her archive, and she usually denied them,” having receded from photography due to the effects of post-war PTSD.

Surrealist Lee Miller is one in a long line of woman-centric surveys at Heide, and reveals Miller’s photographs as pivotal to remembering truths of decades now lost to history. Much of this potent archive, however, remains to be seen; a testament to the privilege that only a photograph can possess.

Surrealist Lee Miller
Heide Museum of Modern Art
On now—25 February

This article was originally published in the January/February 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Caitlin Aloisio Shearer