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The Muse Revolts
Joelle Jameson is an art critic and poet living in Salem, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in ÆQAI, the Houston Press, Salamander, Measure, and numerous other publications. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.
Elizabeth “Lee” Miller (1907-1977) lives at the heart—and the lips, neck, and eyes—of some of the most famous works by Man Ray (1890-1976). As his apprentice, collaborator, lover, and muse, she often posed for him at the Paris studio that the two shared during their romantic relationship, which lasted from 1929 to 1932. Man Ray’s photography from this era made Miller’s face and body world famous. Yet one photograph in particular nearly didn’t survive: 1930’s Neck is a haunting view of Miller’s profile craning from the side, neck and face forming one ethereal, phallic column slanted against a void. Miller fished the negative out of the trash moments after it was discarded, and developed it in the same session, employing the bold cropping method she had learned from Man Ray to make a striking final product. Then she informed him that she was claiming it as her own work.
It was common for Miller to tease Man Ray, and even for their work to be misattributed to each other—such was the closeness of their professional and personal relationship. But on this day, a more serious quarrel than usual ensued. Man Ray threw Miller out of the studio, and when she returned, he’d slashed the print with a razor and pinned it to the wall, with red ink splashed across her neck. The following year, the same image of the neck appeared in his painting Le Logis de l’Artiste (The Artist’s Home), among other objects of the artist’s creation, in a pointed statement of ownership.
Although he was most often praised, both today and in his own time, for his innovative photography, Man Ray professed to identify primarily as a painter. His most famous paintings tend toward the airy and bombastic, favoring white or bright backgrounds with daring attention to color. By contrast, Logis lookslike an ugly interaction. It feels like Dracula’s study. Its red hand is inherently guilty. The craning white neck is the snaking, restless ghost of a love affair. Why rest your eye on this dark jumble when a work like A l’Heure de L’Observatoire: Les Amoureux (Observatory Time: The Lovers, 1936) beckons, with its gargantuan lips soaring through a light blue sky? Those lips also belonged to Lee Miller, haunting the artist for years after their separation.
Le Logis de l’Artiste, a black, white, and red painting about two and a half feet high, recedes among Man Ray’s more popular photographs and paintings. It is the story behind the painting, and the photograph that preceded it, that makes it a significant piece in his prolific career. To modern eyes, the slashing of the neck photograph seems like a clean break between a couple—and maybe cause for a restraining order—but Miller and Man Ray’s breakup was not a clearly defined event. It wasn’t truly official until her departure for New York in 1932. And Lee Miller lived with Le Logis de l’Artiste, along with numerous other works by Man Ray, on display in her home until her death in 1977. In interviews late in her life, she revered his artistic talents while declining to acknowledge her own.
In fact, the story nearly died with Lee Miller—along with most of her oeuvre. She rarely spoke of her own work after she settled down in England in 1947 following the birth of her son, Antony Penrose. If Antony and his late wife, Suzanna, hadn’t found Miller’s long-packed-away negatives and writing after her death, her identity as an artist would likely have been lost forever. The discovery of Neck in that archive prompted a memory from the photographer David Hurn, to whom Lee had related the story of its creation in 1976. It is that story, which came to light after the death of both Miller and Man Ray, which has brought the context of the painting to light and preserved its place in art history.
The dynamic the painting illustrates is particularly relevant today. Since the #MeToo movement resurfaced on an international scale in 2017, it has provoked regret and fury for women’s lost professional, academic, and artistic work—for what might have been, were it not for sexual harassment, gendered dismissal, and outright violence. In such a climate, the story of Le Logis de l’Artiste—of creative ownership, violence, passion both artistic and romantic—carries a pungent, discomfiting relevance. As we grapple with the question of what to do with the art of men who hurt women, it’s instructive to sit with Logis and its depiction of a literal altar to male genius—a concept that individuals and institutions still fight fiercely to preserve.
Cover Image: Detail from Le Logis de l’Artiste (1931). Man Ray. © Man Ray Trust / Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris.
Editor: Joanna Scutts
Fact Checker: Nick Davidson
Copy Editor: Cage Ames