Picasso’s ‘Lee Miller as L’Arlésienne’ (1937)

In 1927 in Manhattan, 19-year-old Lee Miller stepped in front of a car and was pulled back by a stranger — media mogul Condé Nast. Within weeks, Miller was Vogue’s cover girl and reckoned to be the world’s most beautiful woman. In 1929, bored with modelling, she apprenticed herself to Man Ray in Paris, became his lover, and established a photographic studio.

A restless and fearless war photographer from 1940, she accompanied American forces entering Dachau and Buchenwald in 1945. With photographer David E Scherman, she returned to an empty Munich flat that turned out to be Hitler’s; Scherman’s shot of Miller washing off the day’s horror in Hitler’s bathtub, her muddy combat boots on the bathmat, became an iconic liberation image.

How could Picasso not have fallen for a woman of this spirit and beauty? In “Lee Miller as L’Arlésienne” (1937) he painted her in sunshine yellow, with bow lips and open grin — “he has got my smile”. Her husband-to-be, Picasso scholar Roland Penrose, bought the portrait for £50 and, from then until Picasso’s death, Miller photographed the artist a thousand times. The results, shown in this extensive exhibition, uniquely record Picasso’s multi-faceted life and art, and their friendship.

Always dramas of shade and luminosity and of Picasso’s vibrant mobile features, Miller’s crystalline compositions depict the surrealists at play on the Côte d’Azur in the 1930s, intimate scenes of Picasso with his children, vignettes from his wartime Paris studio, and La Californie, the opulent belle époque villa that is backdrop to the record-breaking “Les Femmes d’Alger” paintings.

nationalgalleries.org, 0131 624 6200, to September 6

Photograph: Succession Picasso/DACS

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