“Man Ray, Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” at the Legion of Honor offers an intimate glimpse into a celebrated artist-muse relationship.
Surrealist giant Man Ray met Lee Miller in 1929, when the 1920s “it” girl ditched her Vogue modeling career to study art with him in Paris. They lived together until 1932, when Miller broke things off to pursue her own art career in New York.
Although their time as a couple was brief, their relationship generated bountiful contributions to each artist’s oeuvre, and they remained friends into old age.
Originally organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the exhibition, on view through October, prominently features photography, but also has paintings, sculptures, illustrations and manuscripts from Man Ray, Miller and their circle — which included Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp.
While fruitful, the relationship was often fraught. In one particularly notorious incident, Man Ray attempted to destroy “Neck,” a 1930 gelatin silver print from his “Anatomy” series.
In the image, Miller’s head is turned at a sharp angle, leaving only a shadow for an eye, and faint hints of a nose and lips, giving her neck its own elegant profile. Miller saved the negative from the trash, printed it and claimed the art as hers, making Man Ray livid. He slashed the print at the neck and saturated the raw edge with red ink. The photo on display is a print that wasn’t slashed.
Despite her fame as Man Ray’s muse, Miller was just as talented a photographer; in some ways more so, working not only in the studio as Man Ray preferred, but practicing outside in the real world.
Miller’s Paris photos are off-kilter, framed with an inventive eye that captures reality, as opposed to Man Ray’s fuzzy, fantastical distortions. Bistro chairs, rats on a windowsill, carousel horses and sparkling luxury storefronts all amused Miller, who then turned toward documentary photography.
Working as a combat photographer during World War II, she was assigned to cover napalm bombings, live battles, the London Blitz and the liberation of concentration camps.
Intense images in the show include a 1945 picture shot at Dachau of a dead SS officer floating under shimmering water and quivering grass — everything but the body ripples with life. In another, a Nazi officer who committed suicide is pictured with a defaced portrait of Hitler hovering above him.
After the war, Miller’s artistic life quieted for many years, the result of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-breakup, Man Ray continued to work on his same surrealist trajectory, with Miller’s features, her lips and eyes, frequently his subject.
Viewed side by side, Miller’s work is more refreshing, perhaps because it isn’t as popular; Man Ray’s eyeballs, lips and nudes are on coffee cups and dormitory posters.
Although he is considered a giant of 20th-century art, Man Ray’s work, next to Miller’s in this show, is removed and static compared to Miller’s more vital documentary images.
IF YOU GO
Man Ray, Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 30th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except closed Mondays; show closes Oct. 14
Tickets: $15 general, $12 seniors, $11 youths, free for children 12 and under
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.org