NEW YORK - Sotheby’s is pleased to offer a strong impression, with fresh colors and a full, clean sheet, of Man Ray’s iconic image A L’heure de l’observatoire – Les Amoreaux, which depicts the lips and alludes to the body of Lee Miller.
A budding American photographer, Lee Miller moved to Paris in 1929 and introduced herself to Man Ray at the suggestion of Edward Steichen. She quickly became his favorite model, studio assistant and lover. For the next three years, the pair engaged in an intensely passionate and equally tumultuous romantic relationship. The union eventually broke under the strain of Man Ray’s attempts to control Miller.
A L’heure de l’observatoire – Les Amoreaux depicts Miller’s red lips and the sensuous curves of her body, hovering over the Luxembourg gardens and breast-like domes of the Paris observatory. The depiction reduces Miller to an object of desire and suggests the catalyst for separating. While Man Ray privately expressed frustration at her refusal to be controlled, Miller was a fiercely independent artist in her own right.
Lee Miller left Man Ray and Paris behind to open her own photography studio in New York. During WWII, Lee Miller became one of America’s first female photojournalists recording haunting images of battlefields, the London Blitz and the liberation of Dachau for Vogue and famously posing for LIFE photographer David Sherman in Hitler’s bathtub. Eventually, Miller settled in London permanently.
As Miller thrived, Man Ray fell into despair, clinging to her through his art. Her eyes and lips became ubiquitous in his art during the years immediately following the split. Tragically, Man Ray added one red brushstroke to her lips (the painting hung above his bed) first thing each morning for four years after separating. With time, the sting of the break-up subsided; they reconciled in 1939 and became close friends until the end of their lives. Miller’s son believes this later bond was much closer than anything they achieved as lovers. The lithograph can be understood through the lens of these feelings of reconciliation.
In the 1960s, Man Ray reissued early works as photographs, multiples and lithographs as the Pop artists popularized replicative painting techniques such as screenprinting. Man Ray’s fluid movement between multiple media reflected his maxim that “…to create is divine, to reproduce is human.” Man Ray offered one caveat. An artist is permitted to repeat oneself if one does not repeat (i.e. copy) others. He stated that repetition is perfectly legitimate so long as the replicative images preserve the “spirit” of the original work.
Since the painting, A L’heure de l’observatoire – Les Amoreaux, was an autobiographical, emotionally charged vestige of a lost relationship and he believed that repetition could only be undertaken if it was in-keeping with the spirit of the original work, the lithograph must have held great personal significance. One wonders about Man Ray’s thoughts as he signed and numbered this lithograph in 1970. Whereas he may have seen angst and mourning in the painting from 1930s, perhaps this lithograph personified a less aggressive, even fond nostalgia for their early relationship or, simply, affection for a good friend.