WORDS BY PHIL GRABSKY
Phil’s chosen painting this week is... actually a photograph...
Portrait of Picasso
(1907 - 1977) by Lee Miller
Near where I live in Sussex, southern England, is a fascinating farmhouse that belonged to the photographer Lee Miller. In directing a film about Picasso I naturally came across Miller’s work as they had a creative relationship that began in 1937 and that is worth a look. He painted her six times and she, in turn, took over 1000 photographs of him – including one that she took on a visit to this studio in the south of France in 1958. That photograph now resides in Edinburgh and is my choice of image this week.
Famously, Picasso created tens of thousands of artworks - maybe 50,000 – and he was himself the subject of who knows how many thousands of photographs in his long and extraordinary life. So what makes one photograph more powerful, more respected, than another? There is no doubt that simply putting a well printed photograph in a nice frame and then hanging it in a gallery gives it a status irrespective almost of the inherent quality of the work. I certainly felt that when I made a film about Hockney not so long ago that his portraits were given a remarkable lustre and status simply by the act of framing, hanging and lighting at the Royal Academy. Outside of their frames, just tacked to the studio wall, they simply weren’t as good. That is of course no different to my films: in a gorgeous cinema they look better than on the back of an airline seat. That said, there is something about Miller’s photograph which does draw me in. Something draws you in even if you know nothing about the photographer or photograph.
There is, however, something to be gained by knowing more about the background though. American photographer Lee Miller was 30 when she met Picasso (in his mid-50s) while on holiday in southern France. Miller was with her companion, the British artist Roland Penrose (who was a champion of surrealism – something close to Picasso’s heart too of course). 1937 is a significant year: Spain was in the midst of a civil war. Picasso had responded with one of the great works of the 20th century – Guernica. He would and could no longer return to Spain. Instead Paris, France – where he had first visited in 1900 – was now his home. A few years later, when the Second World War broke out, Picasso remained in his Parisian studio, even under German occupation. There he met Miller again when she arrived – as a Vogue war photographer – on August 25th, 1944, liberation day. Miller and Picasso were now firm friends – she stayed working as a war correspondent until 1946, when she returned to the UK to marry her long-term partner Penrose. The couple visited Picasso frequently – she to take photographs and he to research a biography of Picasso. When Picasso bought a house in Cannes, they followed. It was there she took this picture. Were they lovers? Well, her son Antony Penrose thinks she must have been. Maybe that is revealed in the way he is looking at her – and, also, her him. Penrose has written:
“Of course she was very beautiful, but that was not, in itself, enough for Picasso. What was important was she had this tremendous warmth of personality, she was always the person who made everyone laugh. She also had a very American quick wit - the New York one-liner, the wisecrack.”
After the war, Miller and Penrose lived in the small farmhouse which, as I have said, is not far from me in Sussex. She seems to have been haunted by memories of the World War but was always relieved and happy when Picasso came to visit. Antony, then a young boy, further remembers:
“I knew he was somebody special, because he was special to me! He was just this incredibly warm-hearted, cuddly, friendly person who loved children and animals. I had no idea who he was. My parents never made much of it.”
In his photographs, Penrose summarises:
“It’s two friends looking at each other. What we get is the jokey, playful, warm atmosphere that surrounded them, which is not something you hear about much.”
Is that in this photograph? You decide. Personally, I really like it.
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Thanks for reading! Catch us next week with #PaintingOfTheWeekNo10
Young Picasso is in cinemas now. Book your tickets here!