Written by Photography

MC Escher and Lee Miller

Last weekend saw me visiting a couple of exhibitions that don’t really have a great deal in common – although both artists will have been vaguely contemporaries – but are both of interest.

The Amazing World of MC Escher is said to be the first every exhibition of Escher’s work in the UK.

The exhibition is actually curated by the National Gallery of Scotland where it has been for the last few months, before transferring down to the excellent Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Maurits Cornelis Escher is probably most famous for his repeating patterns, that have a mathematical slant.

Escher himself wasn’t really that much interested in mathematics, although mathematicians were interested in him. A particular exhibition in the 1950s in the Netherlands that coincided with a mathematics conference meant that a number of mathematicians including Sir Roger Penrose and his father Lionel ended up getting in touch with him with new impossible things to feature in his woodcuts.

The skill of Escher in his print production is remarkable. He handprinted much of his own work over his career, and it must have been so technically complicated with the repeating patterns, having to match everything up perfectly.

Perhaps his most famous work comes later on in the exhibition. Ascending and Descending dates from 1960 and features the Penrose stairs – a seemingly ever climbing set of stairs arranged in a square. In the Escher image, some monk-like characters are seen either ever-ascending or ever-descending, as we view from on high.

Overall, a thoroughly good exhibition, and it works well with a recent BBC Four documentary, presented by Sir Roger Penrose himself, on Escher. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, it’ll have dropped off the iPlayer. But look out for a repeat in due course.

I should warn you that this is a popular exhibition, and therefore you may well want to book your tickets in advance – especially if you’re planning to attend at the weekend. You will need a bit of time in front of the pictures, and be able to get relatively close in to see the details in the prints.

I must admit that I’ve been a bit slow coming to photographer Lee Miller. There was an excellent Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2013, which used one of his portraits of Miller as its “hero” image in publicity. In fact Miller was working as a model at the time, and went to him to study photography.

The superb new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – Lee Miller: A Woman’s War – concentrates mostly on her war work, but it does encompass her early life, including her troubling upbringing (she was raped at young age by a family friend, and her father seemed to take a large number of nude photos of her when she was young), and early years living around the world, before her most important work during the war.

Miller, a US citizen, was living in London, and worked her way into Vogue magazine where most of the photographers of the time were male. At the outbreak of war, many of the men became war photographers, and so Miller managed to start getting assignments in the UK, concentrating initially on female workers. Most magazines started supporting the war effort, and when, for example, the ATS was running short of recruits, Vogue would publish a feature on the ATS to help drive recruitment. When cloth was in short supply, it was essential that Vogue backed fashions that utilised less material.

Assignments Miller gained included women taking on new responsibilities in the workplace, including munitions factories and various supporting jobs in the war effort. Miller went around the UK recording this, taking often absorbing photos, or bringing to bear some of the Vogue glamour to otherwise mundane jobs, sometimes bringing workers back to Vogue’s studios for the full shoot.

By the time of the Normandy landings, she had become recognised as a War Photographer – one of just handful of women to gain that acceptance. It’s fantastic to be able to see the uniform she had made for her in Saville Row.

Just three weeks after D-Day, she was in Normandy and recording the work of the field hospitals. Before long she was accompanying the troops as they crossed Europe, recording a liberated Paris, including photos of collaborators having their heads shaved, and finally into Germany.

By now Miller was not just filing Vogue with war photos, but she was filing her own accompanying copy. She even arrived at the concentration camps, which clearly affected her greatly.

One of the most famous photos of Miller is one she constructed with a colleague when they found themselves sleeping in Hitler’s apartment in Munich. The photo is of Miller having a bath in Hitler’s own bath-tub, her muddy boots on the floor, and a picture of Hitler propped up on the edge of the bath. It was a two-fingered salute to the tyrant.

The exhibition ends post-war, but Miller’s own work died down then too, and she suffered from depression in her later years, dying in 1977 at her home in East Sussex.

She was a remarkable woman, and the work speaks for itself. And a photography fan like me might lust after a Rolliflex or Zeiss Contax II such as the cameras she used – the newly printed exposures for this exhibition are so fresh.

I can’t recommend a visit to this exhibition enough.