One of the most original photographers of the 20th century, Lee Miller defied expectations throughout her life and her work. Her broad oeuvre took her from New York to Paris and Egypt; she covered London during the Blitz, the liberation of France and the horrors of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. A collection of these images, carefully curated by her son, writer and photographer Antony Penrose, will be on display at Heide Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition, Surrealist Lee Miller, from November 4 to April 14.

For Penrose, there’s a striking parallel between Heide, the former residence of museum founders John and Sunday Reed, and his family home, Farley's House in East Sussex, where he grew up with Miller and his father, surrealist artist Roland Penrose. While the Reeds hosted famed Australian artists on the Heide property, such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, Penrose’s Sussex home had visitors such as Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst.

Today, the farmhouse has been transformed into Farley’s House and Gallery, a museum and archive dedicated to his parents’ lives and work. It’s the same building where, following Miller’s death in 1977, Penrose’s wife Suzanna discovered a manuscript of Miller’s Vogue report on the World War II Battle of Saint-Malo hidden in the attic.

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“I was not aware of it until later, but that was the most life-changing experience that I could have imagined,” says Penrose. “Because we had to drag everything out of the attic and go through it all, and then we suddenly found we had this incredible world-class collection of photography.”

That collection included a staggering 60,000 negatives and prints taken over the course of Miller’s life. Before that moment, Penrose knew little about the scope of his mother’s career, as she had never spoken about it with him. One hundred of these images will be on display at Heide, showcasing Miller as a pioneer of surrealism through every stage of her career.

“My principal idea was really to show that surrealism as a movement was really a deeply held part of Lee’s living life and her creative life, the two of which were inseparable,” says Penrose. “And what I wanted to show was the way that right from the very beginning, she grasped surrealism, she understood it, it became a kind of way of life for her. And it also guided her way of seeing right through her photographic career.”

Miller began her career as a fashion model in New York City in 1926 – she was discovered when she nearly walked in front of a car but was stopped by Conde Nast, the founder of the media company of the same name, and publisher of Vanity Fair, Vogue and the New Yorker. After working as one of the most sought-after models in New York, Miller moved to Paris in 1929, becoming a model, collaborator and lover to surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. After developing her photographic skills alongside Ray, Miller left him in 1932 and established her own commercial photography studio in New York.

By the outbreak of WWII, Miller was living in London and embarked on a new career as a war photojournalist for British Vogue, photographing the Blitz. Accredited with the US army as a war correspondent from 1942, she travelled across Europe shooting historic moments and locations, including the Battle of Alsace and concentration camps Dachau and Buchenwald. A controversial and iconic image of Miller was taken during this time, snapped by her collaborator and Life correspondent David E Scherman. It shows Miller nude in Hitler’s bathtub on the day of his suicide, the mud from Dachau still on her boots and intentionally all over his pristine bathmat.

With a life and body of work that reads like an epic film, Miller’s story has naturally been adapted into a biopic. Lee, which Penrose produced alongside Kate Winslet, who plays the title role, just had its Los Angeles premiere last month, and will be released in Australia early next year.

“Kate Winslet makes the most convincing Lee Miller. It’s kind of spooky for me watching it because she’s so real and so true to Lee,” says Penrose. “And actually, in life, Kate has Lee’s best qualities because she’s highly intelligent, and she’s very funny, and she’s very compassionate. And she’s very, very hardworking and ingenious. I think it’s just really wonderful that she has absorbed so much of Lee and projects it so accurately.”

Winslet has also written the foreword for Penrose’s most recent book, Lee Miller: Photographs, which was released in August and will be available for purchase at Heide.

Whether through the exhibition, film or book, Miller’s work resonates today as a testament to women’s empowerment, Penrose believes. “Lee had to fight like fury for every inch of turf that she gained in her life,” he says. “A lot of her creative energy was sapped by having to fight battles that she shouldn’t really have had to fight, about being a woman in a man’s world and being recognised as an artist.

“These things are relevant today because we must have greater recognition for women artists. Not because they’re women, just because they happen to be good artists. We need to be much more open to receiving, and being aware of, work by women artists.”

Surrealist Lee Miller is showing at Heide until April 14.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Heide Museum of Modern Art.