Can Lee Miller Ever Be More than Man Ray’s Muse?

“I don’t have students,” Man Ray allegedly told Lee Miller when she finally tracked the Surrealist down in a Parisian bar after he eluded her visit to his front door looking for tutelage. Miller became Man Ray’s student, then his lover, then his muse, and, eventually, as Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, argues, his equal partner. A victim of her own beauty (her husband, artist Roland Penrose, compared meeting Lee for the first time to being “struck by lightning”), Miller continues to toil under the label of “muse” that diminishes her own artistry. This exhibition lifts that label and strikes you with the lightning bolt of realization that Miller and Man Ray developed a deep, profound relationship on multiple levels—artistic, emotional, and philosophical—that we’re still trying to understand.


“For the Surrealists,… objects were more than raw, often vernacular materials to be played with or artworks in and of themselves” Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writes in the exhibition catalog, “they were also material evidence of the artist’s culture—his or her milieu of thought processes and creativity.” Lee Miller knew what it was to be an object and to use objects in this way. Man Ray and other artists, including even Picasso, objectified Miller for her beauty at the same time that Lee herself used photographs to assert her individuality and independence. For Man Ray, for whom “people and objects held equal weight for him as ‘things’”, Hartigan believes, “Lee Miller was the exception, her presence and absence a catalyst of poignantly obsessive proportions.”

Man Ray’s magnificent obsession drove him to include Miller in his life and his art, but also drove his impulse to keep her in his control. “When it came to women’s rights, the Surrealists talked a good game, but failed to deliver on their promises,” Phillip Prodger, curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum, points out in the catalog. Although the Surrealists professed a disdain for all social conventions, when it came to sexual freedom, they saved that freedom for themselves and forbade it for their “muses.” Miller’s promiscuity (with Jean Cocteau and others) maddened Man Ray. Despite that sexual tension, however, Miller and Man Ray achieved a partnership of equality when it came to art. In many instances, Prodger argues, “the two were experimenting with the same idea, and authorship appears to have fallen to whoever happened to be operating the camera at the time of exposure.” True partners, Lee and Man cared more about the art than about who got credit, resulting in a muddle that still plagues Miller’s reputation today.

Despite an increasing number of exhibitions of Lee Miller’s art (spearheaded by her son, Anthony Penrose, who contributes a heartfelt memorial to his mother in the catalog), Miller remains Man Ray’s muse. “Considering her fierce antipathy to the chauvinism of her day,” Prodger considers, “it is surprising that she continues to be described in such a belittling fashion.” Miller left Man Ray in 1932 precisely to escape the “muse” trap. Yet, the label lingers on. Works such as Man Ray’s A l’heure de l’observatoire–les amoureux (in English, Observatory Time–The Lovers; shown above) capture the nature of this captivity of Miller’s reputation. Man Ray claimed that he worked on the painting for an hour or two each morning while still in his pajamas for two years, a story that, even if false, at least indicates the obsessive nature of the image. In the painting, Miller’s disembodied lips levitate over a landscape punctuated by the Montmartre observatory Man Ray could see from his studio. Even when not physically present, Miller’s psychological presence continued to hover over Man Ray’s art—the muse who paradoxically refused to stay and to leave.

Prodger compiles a remarkable analysis of the differences between the photography of Miller and Man Ray that helps define the partnership as mutual rather than “muse”-ual. Whereas Man Ray’s nude photography of Lee showed her as “sensual, vulnerable, and alluring,” Prodger writes, Miller’s nude self-portraits portray her as “formidable: her muscles have definition, determination is written on her face, and her spine is stiffened. Seen through her own lens, Miller is a bold, feminist hero.” The objectified Miller transformed herself into an object that fought back, defying sexist labels using the very same genre conventions that men used to limit her.

Rather than paint Man Ray as a villain, however, the exhibition strives to keep the unique relationship between him and Miller true to real life. Miller’s troubled childhood, followed by her wartime experiences (including seeing the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps in person), scarred her psyche to the point that she essentially stopped working as an artist by 1953. Roland Penrose and Lee purchased works by Man Ray when he struggled financially, and he later reciprocated with artistic gifts he hoped would solace Lee’s troubled soul. Anthony Penrose’s piece captures the lasting affection and respect between the two former lovers and artistic experimenters. In 1974, two years before his own death, Man Ray created a “consoler” for Lee from a wooden cigar box to which he had added a fish-eye lens placed in a drilled peephole. “I think what Man meant,” Anthony offers, “was that if she didn’t like what she saw in her life, peeping through the lens of his Consoler might give her troubles a different perspective and help her get through them.”

Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism acts as a consoler for those who continue to suffer under sexist labels as artists. It is a lens through which we can look at the art of Man Ray and Lee Miller and see not a master and muse but two modern art masters working together and challenging one another to greater and greater creativity. Alas, Man Ray’s desire for a “muse” overpowered his desire for a colleague until it was too late to keep Miller the artist, if not Miller the lover, in his life. When the women artists of today don’t like what they see in their life, they should look to Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism and trust that things are changing for the better.

[Image: Man Ray (1890–1976); A l’heure de l’observatoire–les amoureux (Observatory Time–The Lovers), 1964, after a canvas of c.1931; Color photograph; 19 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. (50 x 124 cm); The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; © 2011 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/ Photo © The Israel Museum by Avshalom Avital.]

[Many thanks to the Peabody Essex Museum for providing me with a review copy of the catalog and other press materials related to Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, which runs through December 4, 2011.]

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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  • Climate change is no longer a financial problem, just a political one.
  • Mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economy would add trillions of dollars in new investments.
  • Public attitudes toward climate change have shifted steadily in favor of action. Now it's up to elected leaders.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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