Tag Archives: Lee Miller

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion – Two Temple Place

Sussex Modernism, Two Temple Place

What inspires an artist has long been one of art’s most interesting questions. Two Temple Place think they have the answer – Sussex – at least for some of the leading proponents of modernism in the early part of the twentieth-century. Much of this was a reaction against the exigencies of modern life with numerous well known creatives including Vanessa and Julian Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lee Miller and Salvador Dali decamping to Sussex to escape the industrial crowding of London, seeking a more relaxed, nature-led and sometimes communal form of living.

This new exhibition celebrates the influence of one of England’s southern-most counties with its combination of seascapes, countryside and peaceful living. Two Temple Place is a rarity among London museums, not only limiting its public opening to a two month period each year with a chance to see its new show, but also the beautiful Thames-side building that once served as the Estate’s Office for the Astors. The exhibitions, now in their sixth year, have covered an interesting variety of topics ranging from last year’s Egyptian definitions of beauty to the art and curio collections of leading industrialists, all beautifully curated and uniting fascinating objects. While many London galleries tend to circulate their objects and paintings amongst themselves, Two Temple Place have developed a reputation for bringing high-quality material from Britain’s regional museums, uniting pieces that have never been seen side by side and, chances are, not seen by Londoners in their original homes.

With pieces from Sussex museums including Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Hasting’s Jerwood Gallery, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery as well as the De La Warr Pavillion and Farleys House and Gallery, this exhibition is an eclectic mix of painting, sculpture, photography, gardening equipment, and arts and crafts. Sussex Modernism argues that London was not the only cultural centre in the first half of the previous century and in fact the villages and coastal towns of Sussex were a hotbed of innovative thinking and the development of radical technique, attracting some of the UK’s most experimental artists whose domestic unconventionality was then reflecting in the work they produced.

Unsurprisingly for a London exhibition, the Bloomsbury Group features front and centre with their time at Charleston near Lewes in Sussex recorded in a series of paintings and crafts by Duncan Grant and close friend Vanessa Bell which link classical mythology with modernist expression. Grant who was famously a conscientious objector in the First World War, evolved as a painter with a fairly traditional early style into something more playful, experimental and with a bolder approach to colour. The exhibition includes his Seurat-inspired ‘Bathers by the Pond’ from c.1920 which uses a pointillist technique and shows several naked or partially dressed young men, an expression of the freedom that the immediate post-war period brought but also a sense of calm.

Equally interesting is ‘Venus and Adonis’ [1919] which depicts a cartoon-like and voluptuous female nude which is fully in this new modernist style. It suggest Venus looking over her shoulder at the distant also nude figure of Adonis, the man she loves, with an ambiguous expression that could be regret, concern, longing or even indifference. Bell’s work exhibited alongside includes a late self-portrait which has a delicate feel, alongside simple cover designs for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – books.

But there’s also plenty to see in room one with a pair of enormous garden rollers dominating the central space, as well as a statue. Work from Ditchling by the now controversial sculptor Eric Gill is included which is sure to reopen debate on whether art should exist on its own terms and whether it can be divorced from its creator, while one of the highlights is David Jones’s 1924 painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’, a vibrant and troubling image of kissing lovers who look less than thrilled with each other as they embrace in front of the stylised trees that lead to their home. As the exhibition argues, it is nature that dominates here with the couple relegated to the bottom corner, but as a First World War veteran, it’s difficult not to see the ongoing effects of the conflict in the emotional ambiguity and sense of challenged domesticity the painting evokes.

Into the beautiful stairwell of Two Temple Place, and a key attraction is Edward James and Salvador Dali’s lip-shaped sofa famously inspired by Mae West in 1938. Its vibrant red colouring and plump aesthetic make it look much newer than it is, with almost a Pop Art aesthetic that was still 30 years way. It looks particularly striking against the buildings high gothic wood panelled interior and is worth making the trip just to see the contrasting styles side-by-side.

Upstairs, there is a room dedicated to the architectural development of the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea which transformed the Edwardian seafront into a controversial modernist paradise and a scale model of its sleek and simple shape is on view. Built in 1935 following an open competition won by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the pavilion was home to a variety of cultural events and a social space that emphasised the aesthetic and practical purpose of modernist buildings and, as the exhibition argues, showing that the creation of cutting-edge and long-lasting modernist work was taking place outside of London.

The final room is an eclectic mix of painting sculpture and photography with the work of surrealists in particular taking precedence. Roland Penrose and wife Lee Miller – who had her own exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year dedicated to her war photography – feature as life at Farley Farm welcomed a community of leading artists to the Sussex countryside. Penrose’s vivid coloured portrait of a pregnant woman – presumably Miller – and Edward Burra’s work is also worth the trip with three large paintings including The Churchyard at Rye but particularly Ropes and Lorries which hints at a carousel with a knight in armour in the foreground. There a couple of photos from Paul Nash but most of his stuff is still at Tate Britain, but considered side-by-side the true surrealist work on display here it only reinforces my previous argument that Nash’s experiment with modernism was pretty unsuccessful.

As ever Two Temple Place has delivered an exhibition of interesting objects and a persuasive argument that many radical and influential artists sought inspiration from the peace of the Sussex countryside and coastal towns. While some may be sniffy about the limits on the works included here, it certainly demonstrates the breadth and value of local collections along with the encouragement to visit more of the donor institutions to see the work in situ, which is certainly at the heart of Two Temple Place’s annual outreach activity. Of course, Dulwich Picture Gallery will have snaffled plenty for its upcoming Vanessa Bell show while the Tate has most of the Paul Nash pieces but there’s plenty to see here. And if this exhibition is anything to go by, with innovation, creativity and plenty of domestic experimentation going on, Sussex is certainly worth a visit!

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion is at Two Temple Place until 23 April and entrance is free. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Lee Miller: A Woman’s War – Imperial War Museum

Lee Miller

At the end of both the First and Second World Wars women were frustrated that they were expected to give up the ‘man’s work’ they had been doing and return to being housewives or objects of delicate beauty. Nowhere is this more obviously ridiculous than in the case of Lee Miller who in the decade before the Second World War transitioned from model to Vogue fashion photographer before going on to become a leading photo-journalist during the conflict, eschewing her former lighter focus to join soldiers on the front line immediately after D-Day, photograph the death camps and travel across Europe in the aftermath of victory to picture the dispossessed and destitute.

Yet Vogue wanted her to go back to taking pictures of the re-emerging clothing lines and millinery, forgetting all about the woman and the artist she had become. An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum which runs until April cleverly charts Miller’s career, from brushes with early surrealism and friendships with Picasso and Hemingway, through her fashion years to celebrations of all kinds of women’s work on the Home Front and eventual documentation of combat and its effects, with accompanying articles written by Miller herself.

Running chronologically, it opens with family photos accompanied by the horrific story of Miller’s rape as a 7 year old and some borderline inappropriate nude shots of a teenage Miller taken by her father as art. Yet later, Miller would often pose nude and several pictures in this exhibition as well as a model of her torso are included which imply a possession of her body and image that might well be unexpected given her early violent experience. One picture shows her naked and covered in camouflage paint beneath some netting which, the IWM cheekily observes, was frequently shown to recruits in camouflage training. On a more serious note, these images help to make sense of her perspective as a photograph which not only understands the role of the model having been one but also in the way she implies both strength and character in her sitters. Whether they are pre-war clothes horses or female mechanics fixing a wireless in the midst of conflict, Miller’s sitters are multifaceted and nuanced women, far more than just a two dimensional image on a page.

One of the more interesting things to learn in this exhibition is just how cleverly magazines like British Vogue were used by the government of the day to influence the way women behaved. From encouraging shorter hair styles which were more suitable for factory life to aiding recruitment for particular sections of the women’s forces, Miller’s photographs inspired and directed the public to aid the war effort. One shot that looks like a fashion piece shows an ordinary female sergeant in uniform sitting in what looks like an airfield, the picture’s style has a sheen of Hollywood glamour but the subject is a working woman in the middle of the working day – and the notes say it did wonders for recruitment. Miller recorded a number of women from 1939-1945 showing the breadth and skill of war work, from nurses and mechanics to WRENS and, in a particularly atmospheric picture, the silhouette of two searchlight operators lit from behind by the lamp pointing to the sky.

The final section of the exhibition signals a major shift in Miller’s work and career; no longer the semi-posed images with a call-to-action for Britain’s women, but the photo-documentation of the consequences and aftermath of warfare on both soldiers and civilians across Europe. Miller graduates to a more serious tone with shots of wounded men being operated on in hospitals, footage from D-Day and sites of destruction in Cologne, Paris and Romania. In a short period she travelled extensively through central and Eastern Europe documenting the chaos and destruction that she found, whether the country in question was an aggressor or victim of the Second World War. Some of the most startling are from Germany with initial shots showing women hanging out their washing in what looks like a totally unspoiled landscape, but these sit next to the devastation the RAF caused in Cologne as two women smoke on a bench amidst the rubble of former houses. Harder still are the shots from liberated camps where German civilians had been forced to view the consequences of their administration. Miller observes them with a critical eye, giving little sympathy for the Axis powers, but providing a fascinating record of defeat.

The shots of Paris too are intriguing, with images of women, we are told, deliberately dressing well with elaborate hair and make-up as a show of defiance against the Nazi occupation. Interestingly, however, this was misinterpreted abroad, particularly here where these images were thought to show Parisians living it up while Britons suffered to help liberate them. The effects of war and the things she photographed took their toll on Miller, however which is also recorded towards the end of the exhibition, and like many of the combatants who served we learn that the things she saw had a lasting effect on her, resulting in bouts of depression and alcoholism which plagued her later years, until her death in 1977.

There are a number of interesting personal items belonging to Miller in the exhibition which along with various cameras include her US uniform, various letters from before and during the war, as well as items once belonging to Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun which Miller stole from their German home when she went to photograph it on the day of their suicide – including a dressing table set and compact. Through this exhibition it’s clear that Miller was quite a force and someone that worked tirelessly during the war to represent women’s lives in her work. These days it’s not at all unusual for a model to turn her hand to other kinds of work from acting to running major fashion and beauty businesses, but they’re never quite able to shake off the ‘former-model’ tag – whatever is written about them it is often preceded by these words, and it’s strange to think someone’s first job will forever define them, as if we’d equally refer to someone as ‘former-Sainsbury’s checkout girl’. Miller undoubtedly faced these obstacles 60 years ago as this exhibition implies and while it’s sad that little has changed, it is also admirable that she overcame them to produce such meaningful and insightful work. It’s not always the most cheerful story, but this exhibition charts Millers various lives extremely well and a chance to see a familiar war from a new perspective.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum until 24 April. Tickets are £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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