Lee Miller Exhibition Review: More Than Just The Woman In Hitler's Bathtub
Raped aged seven. Spotted by Conde Nast aged 19. Muse to Man Ray in her twenties. Painted by Picasso aged 30. And the woman in Hitler's bathtub in 1945, aged 38.
It becomes clear from the very outset of this new Imperial War Museum exhibition, opening with that Picasso and a stunning Penrose painting too, that Lee Miller's life was an extraordinary one.
Split into four sections, Lee Miller: A Woman's War aims to trace photographer Miller's vision of women and their lives from before the Second World War, during wartime in both Britain and Europe, and in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Although her wartime experience is clearly unique (Miller was one of only four female photographers with official accreditation from the US, and the first woman reporter in Normandy after the D-Day landings), the show suggests there are parallels between her experience and that of women throughout Europe.
Before the war, like other women, Miller was restricted by society's gender roles. It took the years of fighting, with men away at the front, for Miller to seize the opportunity to become first a successful fashion photographer, then a photojournalist.
When all the male photographers left British Vogue for war service in 1940, the magazine was forced to consider Miller's services. There's a fantastic display from this time showing a Vogue memo criticising Miller's photos, alongside a letter from Conde Nast himself, two years later, explaining how much she'd improved: she's almost as good as a man, now.
Female conscription in 1941 liberated Miller from the limitations of fashion photography. At the request of the Ministry of Information, British Vogue began a series of features on women in uniform. A kind of soft propaganda, these many portraits and group shots contain emotions missing from Miller's earlier fashion work. And occasionally there are flashes of her surrealist past too: look out for the American nurse drying her many rubber gloves, empty fingers reaching out into the air.
Travelling out into Europe, the exhibition embraces the rather depressing, downbeat tone that has been present since the first chapter (even before the war, curators tell us, the public mood was 'underpinned by depression and anxiety'). While there are shots capturing the joyful feelings of liberation, they're juxtaposed by terrible scenes from death camps, the torture of collaborators, or ruined cities.
The overriding impression is that the war had a devastating impact on women's lives. Indeed, Miller struggled with post-traumatic stress and depression for the rest of her life.
If the exhibition aims to depict all women's experience in the war, we would argue that Miller's extraordinary life rather overtakes that — this becomes a show more about Miller than the common woman. The title (A Woman's War) reflects that. For a show purporting to be about women, it's incredibly short on femininity; we found ourselves longing for some lightness and colour in the rather relentless 150-odd black-and-white photos. The occasional display of a dress, a letter, the trinkets half-inched from Eva Braun's bedside table were like a welcome breath of fresh air as we waded through the sombre sea of pictures.
Lee Miller: A Woman's War runs at IWM London until 24 April, sponsored by Barclays. Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for children, £7 for concessions, members go free.
(We'd love to show you more of these stunning images, but are restricted to four by the Lee Miller Archive.)
Last Updated 19 October 2015