In 1929 Lee Miller approached Man Ray, an artist 17 years her senior, asking him to be her mentor. The elder artist reluctantly agreed, and they began their surreal love affair. Four years after SF MOMA's exhibition focusing on Miller, Legion of Honor presents 115 works made during their four-year affair and artistic collaboration.

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Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky, became enmeshed in New York's Dada scene through his friendship with Marcel Duchamp. Lee Miller was serving as a model for photographer Edward Steichen when he recommended she seek Ray out as a teacher. Ray was involved with cabaret singer Alice Prin (aka Kiki de Montparnasse) at the time, but it was not long before Ray and Miller fell in love. While Miller's physical beauty entranced Ray as both a subject and a lover, her feminism and creative drive drove her to work behind the camera as well as in front of it. The exhibition's main argument rebuts the fable that Miller was merely Ray's muse, offering up instead a mutual collaboration in which both artists influence and help advance each other's visions.

The exhibition is composed of 115 paintings, drawings and manuscripts from the surrealist giants, as well as works by their contemporaries and friends, including Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Alexander Calder. It depicts the accidental discovery of solarization, a photography technique in which a dark aura surrounds a negative that has been exposed to a flash of light. In 1975 Miller recounted the fortuitous stumble in an interview:

"Something crawled across my foot in the darkroom and I let out a yell and turned on the light. I never did find out what it was, a mouse or what. Then I quickly realized that the film was totally exposed: there in the development tanks, ready to be taken out, were a dozen practically fully developed negatives of a nude against a black background... When [Ray] looked at them, the unexposed parts of the negative, which had been the black background, had been exposed by this sharp light that had been turned on and they had developed, and came right up to the edge of the white, nude body. But the background and the image couldn't heal together, so there was a line left which he called a 'solarization.'"

The story has been contested, but like most of Miller's artworks, the veracity is secondary to the effect. The resulting images combine a translucent, ghostly light with grating dark edges, yielding a supernatural effect that floats between heavenly and monstrous. Aside from the tempestuous relationship between light and shadow, the exhibition also contrasts Ray's representation of Miller with her images of herself. The Surrealists, although renowned for their experimental thinking, were notoriously misogynist, aligning man with mind and woman with matter. Their appreciation for femininity was, for the most part, related to their physical form and mystical air. Until the recent "In Wonderland" exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the movement was primarily a boy's club.

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While Ray and Miller are exceptions to the rule, Ray's depictions of Miller present her as beautiful, ethereal -- almost made of air. Miller's view of herself is much more substantial, presenting her features sharp and defined as a Greek marble statue's. Eventually Ray's traditional (read: misogynist) views of gender relations drove Miller to leave him and pursue a career as a photojournalist. He continued to place symbols honoring her beauty in his works, repeating her floating eyes and lips.

The multi-dimensional representations of Miller place her among the next generation female photographers starring in summer exhibitions this year. The most clear extension of Miller's project is Francesca Woodman's retrospective which showed earlier this summer at the Guggenheim. Like Miller, Woodman captured her own image somewhere between reality and shadow, twisting the male gaze ever so slightly to yield unsettling self-portraits. At the Museum of Modern Art, Cindy Sherman's photographs depict a contemporary surrealism, where costumes and roleplaying replace darkroom experimentation. Finally, Yayoi Kusama's newly opened retrospective at the Whitney depicts her dual citizenship in reality and nightmare, self-representation and self-obliteration. All of these artists, like Miller, play both model and artist to depict the complex expectations and possibilities of the female body and mind.

The exhibition, somewhere between historical narrative and hypnotic dream-sequence, gives a stunning glimpse of a collaboration that forever changed the history of art and the possibilities of seeing. While we often hear a lot of talk about real love, this show makes surreal love look enticing enough to try.

"Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism" will show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco until October 14, 2012.

See a slideshow of the work below. Note that some of the slides contain images of nudes, so they are NSFW:

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  • Lee Miller (1907-1977) Nude Bent Forward, c. 1930 Digital color coupler print 7 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. (20 x 17.5 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.leemiller.co.uk

  • Eileen Tweedy (life dates still to come)Man Ray and Lee Miller at the Opening of "Man Ray, Inventor, Painter, Poet" Exhibition at ICA, London, Curated by Roland Penrose, 1975Gelatin silver print6 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (15.9 x 20.9 cm)The Roland Penrose Collection, England© Courtesy of The Penrose Collection. All rights reserved

  • Attributed to Man Ray (1890-1976)Fairground, c. 1930Vintage postcard print3 1/2 x 4 5/8 in. (9 x 11.9 cm)The Roland Penrose Collection, England

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Shadow Patterns on Lee Miller's Torso, c.1930Gelatin silver print12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.8 cm)

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977) Self Portrait, variant on Lee Miller par Lee Miller, c.1930 Gelatin silver print 9 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. (23.3 x 17.4 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.leemiller.co.uk

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977) Portrait of Man Ray, 1931 Gelatin silver print 9 1/8 x 6 7/8 in. (23.3 x 17.5 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.leemiller.co.uk

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)A l'heure de l'observatoire - les amoureux (Observatory Time - The Lovers), c. 1931, color photographof 1964, after the original oil paintingColor photograph19 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. (50 x 124 cm)The Israel Museum, Jerusalem © 2011 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/ Photo © The Israel Museum by Avshalom Avital

  • Man Ray Lee Miller's Eye, 1932Vintage gelatin silver print with inscription in ink on versoLee Miller Archive, England© 2010 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

  • Man Ray (1890 - 1976)Lee Miller, ca. 1930Solarized vintage gelatin silver print23.3 x 18.8 cm.©The Artists Estate 2010. All rights reserved. The Penrose Collection.

  • Man RayPortrait of Lee Miller - Flying Head, c. 1930ParisVintage gelatin silver printLee Miller Archives, England© 2010 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Le Logis de l'artiste (The Artist's Home), c. 1931Oil on canvas27 7/8 x 20 1/2 in. (71 x 52 cm)The Roland Penrose Collection, England© 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Courtesy of The Penrose Collection. All rights reserved

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977) Self Portrait, c.1930 Gelatin silver print 3 ½ x 2 1/8 in. (9.0 x 5.2 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.leemiller.co.uk

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Neck, c. 1930Gelatin silver print9 1/8 x 7 in. (23 x 17.8 cm)The Roland Penrose Collection, England© 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Courtesy of The Penrose Collection. All rights reserved

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Indestructible Object, originally made 1928, destroyed Paris 1957, this replica 1959Metronome with gelatin silver print of Lee Miller's eye9 1/8 x 4 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (23 x 11 x 11 cm)The Roland Penrose Collection, England© 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/Courtesy of The Penrose Collection. All rights reserved

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977)Tania Ramm and Bell Jar, Variant on Hommage à D.A.F. de Sade, c. 1930Gelatin silver print6 7/8 x 5 3/4 in. (17.7 x 14.7 cm)Lee Miller Archives, England

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Untitled (gold lips), n.d.Gold1 x 4 in. (2.5 x 10.1 cm)Man Ray Trust© 2010 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

  • Man Ray (1890-1976)Lee Miller Nude with Sunray Lamp, c.1929Gelatin silver print11 3/8 x 9 in. (29.0 x 22.9 cm)

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977)Woman with Hand on Head, 1931Digital print8 1/2 x 6 7/8 in. (21.7 x 17.4 cm)Lee Miller Archives, England© Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977)Man Ray Shaving, c.1929Gelatin silver print4 ¾ x 3 1/8 in. (12.3 x 7.7 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England

  • Lee Miller (1907-1977) Untitled (Exploding Hand), c. 1930 Gelatin silver print 8 3/4 x 10 3/4 in. (22.3 x 27.4 cm) Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011. All rights reserved. http://www.leemiller.co.uk

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