Gala and Lee Miller, Surrealism in a room of one’s own

Black and white photographs by Lee Miller

Gala was the wife and muse of Salvador Dalí, as well as his secretary and salesperson. Lee Miller was a stunningly beautiful fashion model who worked with photographer Man Ray and served as a photojournalist during the Second World War. Until now, this is basically what these two extraordinary women of Surrealism were known for. Now, however, two exhibits in Barcelona are shedding new light on them. Were they artists, muses, lovers, models… or everything all at once?

When we look closely at Gala and Lee Miller, their role within Surrealism becomes richer and broader. They were complex, creative, cosmopolitan and independent figures. In Barcelona, two exhibits provide a new perspective on these exceptional women, who must certainly have met at some point in their lives. Until October 14, the exhibit “Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own in Púbol” can be seen at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC). From November to early January, “Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain” can be seen at the Fundació Miró. Both get involved in the eternal debate on the relationship between the muse and the artist’s creativity. Lee Miller has been rediscovered in the last few decades thanks to multiple exhibits (including a 1991 retrospective at the Fundació Miró) and no one now questions her central role in 20th-century photography. She was key to the development of techniques such as solarization.

As for Gala, however, her role as an author and artist is more controversial. This is precisely the argument of the exhibit at the MNAC and of its commissioner, Estrella de Diego. Bringing together 315 pieces, it seeks to look beyond Gala as a Surrealist muse and to overcome the stereotypes that portray her as a manipulative woman concerned only with business. Rather, the exhibit argues that Gala “camouflaged” herself as a muse —both with her first husband, poet Paul Éluard, and with Salvador Dalí— in order to play an active role in the creative processes of both.

According to Estrella de Diego, the fact that Dalí began to sign his paintings with the name Gala-Salvador Dalí in the early 1930s indicates Gala’s direct involvement in the artist’s work. She skilfully put together a character —even in apparently banal aspects, such as fashion— playing a part in a large-scale artistic action. The exhibit also documents personal creations by Gala, such as two (unfortunately, now lost) Surrealist objects, also examining her participation in a series of Surrealist experiments and in the autobiography only published in 2011 as Gala Dalí. La vida secreta. Diari inèdit (Gala Dalí. The secret life. Unpublished diary).

The exhibit at MNAC offers more questions than answers, with an argument that’s more intuitive than provable. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worthwhile because of the quality of the pieces by Dalí and the interesting documentation on display.

It’s better to take photographs than to be them

American Lee Miller (1907-1977) was just as courageous, culturally restless and liberal as Gala. After beginning her career as a model for magazines like Vogue, she decided to be the one behind the camera. “I’d rather take a photograph than be one”, she said in 1932.

In 1929, she moved to Paris to apprentice with Surrealism’s official great photographer, Man Ray; she also became a key figure of Surrealism on her own. However, the exhibit at the Fundació Miró, produced by The Hepworth Wakefield, tells a lesser-known story, placing Lee Miller at the centre of Britain’s network of Surrealist artists. “We show Lee Miller not just as an artist, but as an active cultural agent in Britain, especially when London became a refuge for artists before and after the Second World War. The British Surrealist circle formed around her and her eventual husband, Roland Penrose”, explains exhibit commissioner Martina Millà.

The exhibit displays over 180 pieces, including Lee Miller’s most Surrealist photographs or wartime images for Vogue magazine; some are as iconic as the picture of Miller in the bathtub of Hitler’s Munich apartment shortly after the dictator committed suicide. In addition, the exhibit (which is more collective than individual) reviews Britain’s different Surrealist expositions, bringing works by artists like Max Ernst, Picasso, Yves Tanguy, Henry Moore, Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Roland Penrose or Miró himself to the Fundació Miró.

As often happens with female artists, Lee Miller gradually moved away from photography after the birth of her son, Tony. Her work was forgotten for decades until, in the early ‘80s, Tony himself found his mother’s pieces and worked to give her the recognition she deserved.

Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain
Fundació Joan Miró
Until January 20, 2019

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