REVIEW: Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum

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The photographer who had her images of Buchenwald published in Vogue is the subject of a new retrospective.

A woman sits in the bath and washes her back with a flannel, looking up and over the camera at an unseen observer. On the edge of the bath sits a black and white photo of the man who owns the flat: a middle-aged German man in military uniform, with a now unmistakable toothbrush moustache.

Lee Miller began her artistic career as a surrealist, and her abiding interest in surrealism is a strong theme running through this exhibition staged at the Imperial War Museum, London.

From the painting she posed for at the start of her career, to the dark eyes of rafters in snow that are pictured in her post-war photos of the Balkans, her images marry the bizarre and the banal.

Miller was one of four photographers to be accredited as an official photographer for the US Army and had unrivaled access to record the lives of troops and civilians in the Second World War.

A Woman’s War opens with a traumatic event from Miller’s early childhood that will, for some visitors, frame the rest of the exhibition. It also opens with Miller’s career as a model and subject which had a huge influence on her work. For example, the exhibition opens with a shot Miller took of a model wearing a sabre guard over her shoulder like a couture sleeve. According to notes, it was a re-imagining of a Man Ray image that pictured Miller wearing the guard as a mask, posing nude.

During the war, Miller photographed fashion models, posing them in front of blitzed buildings and on the threshold of bomb shelters. Even in these images, there are still touches of surrealism: photos of blast marks shaped like the British Gas mascot Mr Therm, and models’ pretty faces hidden behind gas masks.

Miller’s post-war women dominate this exhibition. One photograph shows a Parisian woman, also a resistance fighter, who wears an impressive pompadour hairdo. The caption informs us that British Vogue readers reacted strongly upon seeing it – mistaking the style statement against occupying Nazis as a slur on the way fashion had been rationed in Britain.

In Paris Miller also shot Salon Gervais. It was the first salon in the city to regain power. (Its hairdryers ran on electricity generated by men riding a static tandem in the basement). But defiance was not limited to the Allies. One image Miller took after the war shows a German woman on a compulsory visit to the camps wearing national dress.

Miller’s images like this feel like faint echoes of the story about lipsticks handed out after Bergen-Belsen was liberated: of the surreal, uncomfortable nature of survival.

At the end of the exhibition hangs a lightbox with a picture of Miller in later life. After the war, she suffered from depression and alcoholism, and appearances in Vogue featured her as a chef and homemaker. (Miller was apparently the first woman in Britain to own a microwave). In the image, the only lightbox in the exhibition, the kitchen glows with the terracotta tiles and butter-yellow curtains. But the warmth of the setting stands in stark contrast to the cold emptiness of the picture, and of Miller’s own styling and pose

After last year’s brilliant Conflict, Time, Photography at the Tate, it feels imperative that London’s museums and galleries continue to exhibit the work of artists like Miller who whose work speaks across decades. The Imperial War Museum has very much achieved this with ‘A Woman’s War’.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at IWM London until 24 April 2016

ellie broughtonEllie Broughton is an arts writer from London. She has previously been published by 3AM, Litro, and Elsewhere Journal as well as The Debrief, Metro and Independent Voices.