History Lesson(s) #15

Lee Miller (Suicide) - Man Ray, 1930, gelatin silver print


In his autobiography, Self-Portrait (1963), Man Ray wrote: “From time to time, after a suicide of someone close to us, the question was raised as to whether this was a solution to an unbearable situation.” Ray reflected on the actuality of suicide in a series of works, including an early airbrush painting (1917), a portrait of Lee Miller (1930), and a photographic self-portrait (1932), in which he sits beside a bottle of poison with a rope around his neck, pointing a gun towards his head. The latter image was staged the night Miller left Ray, three years after they first met on the upper floor of the Bateau Ivre on the Boulevard Raspail. Earlier that day, in 1932, Miller had recovered a discarded negative from a bin in Ray’s studio, and cropped the image to form a new work. In a rage that followed, Ray threw his lover out, and she returned days later to find a copy of the reshaped photograph nailed to the wall, the image of her neck slashed by a razor and covered in red ink. Miller responded by buying a one-way ticket to New York, and left Paris immediately.

After Miller’s departure, Ray completed A l’heure de l’observatoire – les amoureux (Observatory Time – the Lovers) (later photographed in colour): an eight-foot-wide canvas of red lips, modelled upon Miller’s, suspended against a serene, clouded sky. Ray claimed that he worked on the painting for one to two hours each morning for two years, and accompanied this labour with a poem: “...in this instant before awakening, when I cast loose from my body − I am weightless − I meet you in the even light and empty space, and, my only reality, kiss you with all that is left of me.” Later, Ray returned to photograph the painting a number of times for an informal series, in which it hangs above a woman pressing her head to her knees, and a sofa upon which a statue of a female figure lies decapitated. After five years passed, Ray and Miller met again in the south of France, and, in time, became close friends. Their friendship endured until his death, from an infected lung, in 1976, and hers, of cancer, in 1977.