Sense and sensuality

Sex ran like a river through the life and work of Lee Miller. Charles Darwent reassesses the model,

When it came to providing clouds for silver linings, Lee Miller's life went in for the cumulonimbus: the two events that most shaped her genius were rape and world war.

The first of these, perpetrated on a seven-year-old Miller by the sailor son of family friends, left her with gonorrhoea. Worried that the incident (and the painful douches of dichloride of mercury that followed it) might scar the child for life, Miller's parents employed a psychiatrist to convince her that sex was a thing of no consequence. As Antony Penrose, her son, notes in a recently republished biography of his mother, the doctor was rather more successful than Mr and Mrs Miller might have wished. From an alarmingly early age, Lee showed the kind of pragmatic approach to sex that left her numerous male lovers (including her fellow photographer Man Ray) by turns lamenting her promiscuity and sobbing into their pillows at her heartlessness.

This was not the only piece of gender table-turning that came from Miller's childhood trauma. Her photographic eye, too, seems hyper-masculine, in the sense of being at once charged with sexuality and completely unbothered by it. Miller's early work, made during her time with Man Ray in Paris between 1929 and 1932 - Nude Bent Forward is a good example - shows an interest in abstract form that is only coincidentally to do with the nature of its subject (a naked woman). If the oxymoronic iciness of Canova's nudes earned him the nickname "the erotic Frigidaire", then Miller is a fireless furnace: sex is both an automatic assumption in all of her pictures and the last thing that they are about. Even her most prosaic work has an erotic vocabulary. Asked to produce a promotional brochure for the Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d'Electricite in the mid-1930s, Miller delivered a dummy filled with nude photographs of herself. The company's directors, not entirely surprisingly, failed to see the relevance and sent it back.

It is this same air of casual sexuality that turns the war-time photographs for which Miller is best known into works of genius. Through her pictures of the destruction of the second world war runs an innate feeling for the conjunction between sex and death. Revenge on Culture - a shot of a statue lying in the rubble of a German air raid on London - has an undeniably post-coital air about it; the sculpture bears a curious resemblance to Miller herself. One of her most famous pictures - of the body of the daughter of the burgomaster of Leipzig, poisoned by her parents as the Allies took the city - shows a similar ambiguity. The girl, blonde and beautiful, lies back with a kind of ecstatic abandon. Miller, herself blonde and beautiful, captioned the picture not with a homily on the wastefulness of war or the monstrosity of Nazism, but with an appraising look at her subject's face. "She had," recalled the photographer, "exceptionally pretty teeth."

"The Lives of Lee Miller" by Antony Penrose is published by Thames & Hudson at £16.95