Virtual Study Visit

Lee Miller

The Website listing for the exhibition was enlightening, I was not aware that surrealism existed in Britain I thought it was a continental thing and I was surprised to find Henry Moore listed as a Surrealist I had always considered him to be one of those unique British artists like Bacon or Turner that did not really fit into a movement.

So I was intrigued, not enough to hot foot it up to Wakefield, but enough to buy the catalogue from Amazon. This is the usual way I deal with an exhibition, I find pre-reading the catalogue serves two purposes, it helps you decide if you really need to visit the exhibition and if you do decide to go it saves you reading the walls when you get there so you have more time to look at the works on display.

Figure 1 Clip from Cocteau’s The Blood of the poet

I spent some time following the timeline and spent a happy hour watching Cocteau’s film The blood of the poet, which was all the more surreal for being in French, but enjoyable none the less.

In the reviews several pieces are highlighted, Christian House chooses David E. Scherman, dressed for war and Nude bent forward, Hanna Clugston settles on Woman as perceiver while Laura Freeman picked Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, the title of which is far more surreal than the actual photograph. All of the reviews manage to highlight the surreal aspect of the exhibition which is in high contrast to Miller’s other job as a war photographer.

Breton Defined Surrealism as Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner-the Actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.(Breton cited in Danchev).

Millers photographs are a good fit with this definition except that control must be exercised by reason to perform the actual photography but this appears to be so of any surrealist work that control must be exercised in the making, certainly Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub is bereft of moral concerns.

The representation of past surrealist exhibition material in the exhibition only serves to cement Miller with the actual happening of surrealism in Britain in a historical sense, that she created an artwork, The Kiss for exhibition by instructions contained in a letter from Egypt is in itself pretty surreal.


Figure 2  Eileen Agar and Golden tooth Sculpture

The frontispiece of the catalogue features the Photograph Eileen Agar and Golden tooth Sculpture a masterpiece of surrealism. That a group of surrealists should visit the surreal setting of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton is surreal in itself, Miller’s playful composition of dreamlike shadows includes her own shadow almost as a disembodied eye to further puzzle the viewer.

Disembodied body parts are a feature of surrealist art and with Hands for the job Miller continues this trend contrasting the feminine hands with the potential violence of the armaments being made

Figure 3  Hands for the job


Figure 4 Corsetry (solarised photograph)

Solarisation was a technique invented by Miller, it gives a surreal unearthly feeling to a conventional photograph, I wonder if this is a technique included in Photoshop as it is a technique specific to developing film in the traditional method with chemicals and everything.

Figure 5 David E Scherman dressed for war

The poster for the exhibition is testament to the attention paid by the curators of the exhibition, they had something to say, and they said it very well. It may be an early 21st reading, but to capture a Jewish sounding name with a gas mask, a camera and an umbrella is a surreal prophecy of what Miller was to photograph later in her career as a war photographer. Scherman’s watch strap is also prophetic of machine guns ammunition.

My favourite picture from the exhibition is Lee Millar in Hitler’s bathtub, as surrealism goes this is beyond compare and although the photograph was taken by David E Scherman, it perfectly depicts Miller as artist and muse. It is a perfect title for the piece.

Figure 6 Lee Millar in Hitler’s bathtubBottom of Form

Viviane Sassen

There are strange parallels between the careers of Sasson and Miller, both their fathers were keen photographers, they both began their careers as models before becoming photographers and the both practiced art and fashion photography. Both have a keen sense of the surreal, until now I thought that surrealists were men with funny moustaches but having studied these two artists I am somehow convinced, as Eileen Agar said,  Women are or should be the real Surrealists because of the metamorphic changes in the womb when they are pregnant. (Sassen 2018, surrealistically the book has no page numbers)

From watching the videos, it would seem that it was no coincidence that the gallery chose to pair these two exhibitions Sassen has the disembodied body parts, the shadows the quirky unusual details, the solarisation and the surrealist desert, just as Miller has. The use of colour by Sassen is glorious but is a technological advancement in the medium rather than a deliberate ploy.

Figure 1 HGG

This image appears to show the shadow cast by the photographer as part of the composition in a similar way as in Millers work Eileen Agar and Golden tooth Sculpture. There is effective contrast using the complimentaries red and green even though both are in a high key they are of approximately the same chroma. The subject of the work is headless and pregnant this alludes to both Freud’s fetish theories and the quote above by Eileen Agar. The texture of the figure is reminiscent of Bomberg or Auerbach the lurid pink reminds me of Francis Bacon’s work or it could be a latter day ecorche.

Figure 2 Yellow Vlie

Vlie is the Dutch for estuary which is the subject of the work, but somehow the subject of the work is not the estuary the yellow plane. The image has a flat quality relieved only but the yellow plane, which by its perspective adds depth to the work and the yellow dominates the colour scheme of the work. From the research sources available Sassen was attempting to create a photographic version of Malevich’s black square, she probably succeeded at this because the work can be read by the viewer in any way that they please. Maybe this has something to do with the Hot Mirror I am seeking.

Figure 3 Marte #02

This work is a classic example of surrealist disembodiment, it works in such a way as to confuse the male gaze, again there is good contrast between the flesh tones and the green of the ground. The use of the mirror reminds me of the work of Francesca Woodman, until now i had not considered the surrealistic aspect of Woodman’s work.


Figure 4 Belladonna

There is a lot of abstract space in this work which is somehow reminiscent of Sergeants’ paintings of boats there could even be a boat beneath the fabric this sends the imagination racing as to what the narrative of the piece might be, Is Belladonna the sleeping or dead figure or the name of the boat beneath the sheet.

The sheet has strong diagonals that lead the eye to the subject of the work and the wrinkles in the sheet add texture to the large areas of space.

Figure 5 Inhale

Again the diagonal folds in the textile lead the eye around the picture, giving it a certain dynamism. The head looks peaceful or dead, almost like it has pennies over the eyes. The leaf over the mouth replaces the lips, but I can’t help seeing Salvador Dali in there but then that would be just too surreal for words.

Figure 6 Ra

Ra is of course the Egyptian sun god which could probably account for the heat of the red background and there is an Egyptian feel to the gesture of the disembodied hand. The hand is Childish and playful and the colouring reminds me of a handful of sky. I am mimicking the pose and imagining the shadow under the forearm and on the ground to be that of the photographer. Shadows are somehow magical and dreamlike and important in surrealist images

Sassen obviously had a great deal of input into the exhibition, she can be seen in the promotional video experimenting with a scale model of the gallery. Between her and the curators, they have presented us with a wide view of her work which would certainly bear closer examination.

One of the best things I can take away from this research is Sassen’s quote, You need to photograph every day, make stuff every day and not be precious about it (Fletcher 2018)

The research material that Helen provided was excellent and thorough and I had a great time interacting with it and there were quite a few research alleys I drifted down , while not strictly relevant to the matter at hand were interesting none the less.

The hangout had a few technical problems at the start but once the discussion got going it was quite lively. I only made a couple of notes with the Sharpie because I had researched everything that was being talked about so only the odd point came up that I didn’t know something about.

While I learned a great deal about the two photographers in question I have also developed a working knowledge of Surrealism as a thing. So that I am now able to think surreally, I probably thought surreally before, without recognising I was thinking surreally and just put it down to the voices in my head.

Surrealism was an art movement invented by Andre Breton. Lee Miller was a member of a group of surrealist artists and therefore produced surrealist works, there doesn’t seem anything odd about that.

Viviane Sassen is an artist whose work is classed as surrealist, presumably, from my research so far, by experts and curators. She claims some of her work to be influenced by Malevich’s Black Square, Malevich was not a surrealist. So could Sassen be a natural surrealist? And rather than being influenced by Breton’s writings could the original surrealists be natural surrealists who just grouped under a convenient banner?

Maybe some the answer lies in the Sassen interview, which, in the light of the above I will re-watch to look for clues.

Having re-watched the video looking for clues and after reading the below internet article that Stefan found. I have come to the conclusion that Sassen is a natural surrealist and only the surreal aspect of her work was highlighted in the recent show.

Whilst in the video Sassen expresses an interest in childlike themes, shadows and dreams, she is also conscious that once her work is out there, people will make of it what they will she doesn’t go so far as to say it but the selection of her work, by the curators and herself highlights the similarities between the part of her own work that corresponds with the surrealism of Miller.

It is pretty surreal in this day and age or even in any age to take up brushes and paints to depict your vision, does that mean all artists are in some sense surreal?

There are too many unanswerable questions in this line of thought, no doubt this train of thought will resurface as answers become available.




Sassen, V. (2018) Hot Mirror. London: Prestel Publishing Ltd.

Clayton, E. (2018) Lee Millerand Surrealism in Britain. London: Lund Humphiries.

Danchev, A. (2011) 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. London: Penguin

Prodger, P. (2011) Man Ray and Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism. ondon: MerrelolPublishers Lts.

Internet Research

Cocteau, J. (1930 The Blood of the poet. At: on 07/10/18)

Clugston, H. (2018) Lee Miller and Viviane Sassen review- photography and the female gaze. At: (Accessed on 07/10/18)

Cocteau, J. (1930 The Blood of the poet. At: on 07/10/18)

Freeman, L. (2018) Grim and Glorious: Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain reviewed. At: (Accessed on 07/10/18)

Fletcher, G. (2018) Viviane Sassen on Creativity and experimentation At:  (Accessed on 09.10.18)

Hepworth Gallery. (2018) Lee Miller and Surealism in Britain At:  (Accessed on 07/10/18)

House , C. (2018) Lee Miller/Viviane Sassen, The Hepworth Wakefield, review: a dazzling pairing of the first ladies of surrealism. (Accessed on 07/10/18)


Muraben, B. (2018) An eye for the uncanny: Viviane Sassen on her concurrent exhitition with Lee Miller. At: (Accessed 15/10/18)

Sassen, V. (2018) Hot Mirror At: (Accessed on 09.10.18)

Sassen, V. (2018) in Conversation At: (Accessed on 09.10.18)

Sassen, V. (2014) Totem At: (Accessed on 09.10.18)




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