Death and the maiden

› kimberly@sfbg.com

REVIEW Somewhat eclipsed by the mob scene upstairs at "Frida Kahlo," the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s "The Art of Lee Miller" abounds with riveting images — not least those of the late photographer herself, who was, at different times, a nude model for her father, a high fashion mannequin for Vogue, and a muse and collaborator for her onetime lover Man Ray. Many will fix in your mind long after this sizable show ends — the tattered window into an otherworldly Egypt of Portrait of Space (1937), the chorus line of dangling rat posteriors in Untitled (Rat Tails) (1930), and the persistently chic English ladies in wartime protective headgear of Women with Fire Masks, London (1941).

But two Miller images — sensational were they not so sober — bid you return to examine them further: The Suicided Burgermeister’s Daughter, Leipzig, Germany (1945) and Untitled [Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy] (circa 1930). Both play morbidly within the haunted dreamscapes of surrealism, teasing out a certain tongue-in-cheek formalism, or, in the case of the portrait of the deceased fräulein, upend classical aesthetic values with a detachment that’s chilled to the bone and coolly black-humored.

Experimenting with architecturally focused abstraction, dadaism, and surrealism in the early ’30s, during her Parisian tryst with Man Ray, Lee said she was working as a medical photographer in the city when she managed to spirit away a breast amputated in a mastectomy operation from a local hospital. Back at the studio she photographed it two ways: once with its sagging skin-side exterior facing her camera, and again with its gory innards threatening to spill out like kidney pie. In both images the breast lies in an elegant ivory plate on a creased, innocuously striped, lightly grid-printed place mat, with a fork and knife laid out for an imagined meal. The two perspectives on print are displayed side by side, as if to ironically mimic the natural placement of these mammaries. If not for the card, one would mistake the slab on the plate for a somewhat unappetizing kidney pie or pig’s ear. Whitney Chadwick, the author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames & Hudson, 1991), described Miller re-envisioning this breast "not as an object of male desire, but as dead meat," and it does seem as if Miller sought to load these life-giving symbols of nurturance and desire with connotations of vulnerability and sacrifice. She takes the dismembered body part’s symbolism to its bitter end — while referencing the common surrealist obsession with those primal glands as well as the Catholic iconography of St. Agatha, who is often pictured proffering her plated breasts to devout viewers. The frequently and easily commodifiable body parts are served up for your visual consumption.

Exhibition catalog author Mark Haworth-Booth points to the surrealist notion of "convulsive beauty" and the movement’s general fascination with effigies in reference to Miller’s stunningly lit and composed The Suicided Burgermeister’s Daughter, shot during her tenure as the only female photojournalist allowed into combat during World War II. The body’s hair, skin, brow, pretty lids, and steepled nose evoke the eternal appeal of an angel aloft above a headstone. Her arms caress the front of her heavy wool Nazi nurse’s coat. Her lips, unnaturally pale and marble-like, are slightly parted, revealing perfect teeth with a whiff of inadvertent eroticism, and she lies on a leather couch — on which the one distended button and a small rip in the leather arm are the only hints of decay.

Most intriguing, Miller seems to have blurred the area above the body, making it appear as if a fine mist or fog is descending on the prone form. In the accompanying original dispatch for Vogue, the magazine she once posed for and later reported for, Miller writes of "the love of death which is the under-pattern of the German living caught up with the high officials of the regime," text that went unpublished in the magazine. The careful formality of Burgermeister’s Daughter‘s composition brings to mind and counterpoints those of more recently deceased Germans: Gerhard Richter’s paintings of the also-suicided members of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Yet, with Burgermeister’s Daughter and Untitled, it’s hard to imagine another artist so associated with the temporal flash of fashion making images as powerful and as fueled by the death urge.

THE ART OF LEE MILLER

Through Sept. 14.

Mon.–Tues., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

$7–<\d>$12.50, free for members and 12 and under (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–8:45 p.m.)

(415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org