When Frida didn't meet Lee at SFMoMA

Last month I visited San Francisco and engaged in some art-peeping and food-eating with Professor N and La Doctorante.  One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to SFMoMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I saw the headline show of Frida Kahlo paintings and the less-publicized retrospective of Lee Miller photographs and drawings.

Because of the restricted entrance time for the Kahlo show, I saw about half the Lee Miller, then the Kalho, then back to Miller.  The points of comparison were interesting, and when I get back home and did some reserach, it got more interesting. In fact, I really have to wonder how the museum put the two shows on at the same time without ever recognizing or celebrating the connection between them.  I think it could have been an engaging gallery talk or symposium.

For those who haven't seen the exhibitions or the movie or otherwise haven't geeked out on this as much as I, here are quick capsule artist bios of these two women that do them terrible disservice.  Click to the wiki to learn a little more.

Lee Miller worked as a model in New York until one day she decided to go to Paris and become a photographer and Man Ray's apprentice.  She became more than just his student.  Many photographs attributed to Man Ray might actually be her work.  She runs in the surrealist circle and later becomes a photojournalist for Vogue, eventually covering WWII including the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau.

Frida Kahlo was an art student when whe met painter Diego Rivera and asked for his help in developing her career as a painter.  They were married twice, covering most of her adult life despite frequent infidelity on both sides.  Rivera was a famous artist in his lifetime, Kahlo much less so.

Both were born in 1907.  I can find only one time and place where they might have met, in Paris in 1939, but can't establish that they did.  Both agressively sought out sucessful male artists and became their protoges and lovers, Frida and Diego orbited eachother for a long time, while Lee was linked with several of the surrealists and eventually married surrealist painter Roland Penrose.

Kahlo had polio as a child and was in an accident as a teenager that left her with spine and leg problems throughout her life.  Medical themes run through some of her self-portraits.  Lee Miller's childhood trauma is a little harder to pin down in her work, but she was raped as a child and was treated for a sexually-transmitted disease, and as a teenager, she was often a nude model for her father's photographic hobby.  Psychologists could certainly speculate.

The surrealists adopted Frida Kahlo as a kindred spirit although she had little communication with them except for an exhibition at the Louvre organized for her by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp in 1939.  This is the possible point of overlap with Lee Miller, who was clearly linked to the surrealists through Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Paul Eulard, and others, and who was in Paris for at least part of 1939 after returning from a sojourn in Egypt with her first husband and before moving to England with Penrose.

Both artists touch on the conflict of being the muse or the model in their work.  Miller had experience on both sides of the lens, and in some of her drawings and paintings showed some thought about being the observed and objectified body for the surrealists.  Kahlo never worked as a model in that way, but her likeness appears in many of Digeo Rivera's works.  Her self-portraiture, the best-known segment of her work, constantly probes beauty and sexuality.  I've been unable to find web versions of some of the most illustrative images from the museum show.  I guess I should have bought the catalogs.

Am I seeing things that aren't there?  It wouldn't be the first time.  I did find two places where these two artists are mentioned together:

In the LA Times, Mary Mcnamara wrote a piece called "The muse steps off the pedestal" in 2003 about a Lee Miller show called "The surrealist muse."  She talks about the discovery of a trove of Miller's work after her death, and mentions Kahlo in passing and nominates another woman artist overshadowed by a more-famous partner.

We look at the many ways inspiration occurs,” says Weston Naef, who curated the Lee Miller show. “At the many sources including raw nature, or art itself. It’s really just the process of looking at surroundings in a new way. Lee Miller was a primal force who changed more lives than they changed hers.”

In doing so, she helped redefine the term to include a kindred artistic spirit who creates as much as inspires. Someone who looks more perhaps like Frida Kahlo or Yoko Ono than Ophelia.

In a 1999 edition of Aperture magazine on the theme of male/female, there's an interview with Madonna.  We all know about her interest in Frida, but it turns out she knows about Lee Miller too, mentioning her several times.

Madonna: And, by the way, artists through the centuries have been into role-playing. I mean Frida Kahlo always dressed like a man. And so did Lee Miller for a time. There are lots of people sort of switched back and forth, but that was always reserved for fine art; in pop culture, you're expected to behave in a socially acceptable way.


Madonna: Well, a lot of the artists that I collect and that I admire: Lee Miller, Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo - that whole group of females that kind of started off as muses and became artists in their own right and absolutely worked in a lot of different worlds and moved in a lot of different worlds and were artstic and political and still had their femininity about them. I can't think of anybody now.

Maybe an enterprising art history student will take up this line of inquiry.  Maybe Madonna will push a Lee Miller movie the way she did the Frida Kahlo movie.  Maybe in that dissertation or in that movie, Frida and Lee will finally meet, and talk about art and life.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post. The quotes by Madonna reiterate, to me at least, how relevant these artists are still today. I wish I knew more about the transformation from muse to artist and how these artists gained recognition and respect (coming out from the shadows of their mentors and lovers as artists in their own right).
  2. Thanks .. I am, and work with survivors of child sexual abuse. It is always an inspiration to discover a survivor who has gone on to have an impact on the world.

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