It’s Nice That

An eye for the uncanny: Viviane Sassen on her concurrent exhibition with Lee Miller

Lee Miller and Viviane Sassen’s work, intentions and verve crossover in ways that may be unexpected considering the close to a century’s gap between their births. Both started out as models: for Sassen, her shift to photography was initially driven by a desire to show a kind of sexuality that was different from that created by the male gaze, “one that’s more fractured and disjointed”

Viviane Sassen, Ra
Lee Miller and Viviane Sassen’s work, intentions and verve crossover in ways that may be unexpected considering the close to a century’s gap between their births. Both started out as models: for Sassen, her shift to photography was initially driven by a desire to show a kind of sexuality that was different from that created by the male gaze, “one that’s more fractured and disjointed”; for Miller, it was frustration with the passivity of life in front of the lens. In a manuscript from the archive found and maintained by her son, Antony Penrose, she’s reported by The Guardian as having written: “I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside”. For both women, the move from simply being seen, to being the authors of their own image, was soon recast as an opportunity to convey their ideas and experiences, and to show the distortions inherent to subjectivity. In concurrent shows at the Hepworth Wakefield – Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain and Hot Mirror – Miller and Sassen’s affinity with the surreal will take centre stage.

Having played model and muse for a number of Surrealists, Lee Miller went on to become an accomplished artist in her own right, and alongside her art practice, she set up a portrait studio in New York and was instrumental in the invention of “solarisation” – a technique that involves the reversal of tone in photographic prints, creating a silvery aura. As a London correspondent for Condé Nast, she worked first as a fashion photographer before moving on to war reportage. Her eye for the uncanny continued to influence her practice – framing photographs of bomb-sites in ways that distorted their form and challenged perceptions of scale and tone – until the playfulness that defined the Surrealist approach no longer seemed appropriate, with the impact of WW2 unravelling as she followed the German retreat through Europe.

Like Miller, Viviane Sassen splits her time between commercial and fine art practice – working in advertising and editorial, as well as making books, installations and works for exhibition – and while there are various points where the nature of these contexts diverge, Sassen considers each element as part of one whole. “They feed off each other, it’s still my brain and eyes making all the connections. Fashion photography allows me to experiment in a more frivolous way, and I love the playfulness and energy of the collaborations” she says. “In my personal work, it’s really exactly that – it’s personal and introverted. I’m interested in material, texture and tactility. I’ve always been drawn to sculpture and painting, and photography – being a medium with such smooth surfaces – makes me particularly obsessed with texture!”

In Hot Mirror, Sassen presents work from the last ten years, alongside and mixed up with new photographs, collages and installations in a series of what she describes as “image poems”. Drawing upon Surrealist strategies of cut-ups and montage, the “image poems” offer new and unexpected juxtapositions between locations, ideas and forms; foregrounding the fragments, shadows and magical thinking that defines Sassen’s practice. “I realised that rather than making a chronological or historical overview, it would be much more interesting to mix the works, so new narratives and connections appeared” she said. “I’ve always been interested in how the meaning of an image can change, sometimes quite drastically, when you change its context. In that sense, I see these images as single words; together they can create new sentences, based on how you combine and order them. The meaning of an image is never fixed, it has a fluidity I like to play with.”

Of showing beside Miller, she says: “We both have an eye for the uncanny, the slightly off, a fascination with shadows, a darker side – and with a pinch of humour. The Hepworth Wakefield asked me to do a show next to Lee Miller, as a contemporary counterbalance to her work; as the exhibition of her work focuses on the Surrealist period, we agreed that it’d be interesting to look at the same elements in my work. Like them, I’m very much involved with the idea of the subconscious, the dream world, magical thinking.”

In Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, the first exhibition to explore Miller’s involvement with surrealist circles in Britain, the story of the period is told through her lens, focusing on both her work and that of the artists she knew. Featuring works by Eileen Agar, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Henry Moore; the exhibition considers Miller’s role in gathering the community of artists together, many of whom were forced to leave continental Europe due to the tensions and trauma of WW2. Miller’s husband, the artist Roland Penrose, had put together an organising committee for the first International Surrealism exhibition in London in 1936, and an exhibition in Cornwall in 1937, which showed Miller’s work – and works featuring her – alongside that of her contemporaries. After the war, Miller and Penrose moved from London to East Sussex, where they hosted many of the artists they’d worked and shown with at their home, Farley Farm House. They’d hold elaborate dinners – according to a New York Times piece from 2007, Miller would make “historical food like roast suckling pig and Surrealist fare like marshmallows in Coca-Cola sauce” – and photograph their visitors during walks on the South Downs including, most famously, the photograph Miller took of Henry Moore clinging to his sculpture, Mother and Child, in her garden at Farley’s.

It was also during this period that Miller would shut away her archives – her art practice and her work as a fashion and war photographer – which her son Antony Penrose only found after she died in 1977. According to Penrose, as reported by Janine di Giovanni in The New York Times, her experience during the war had left her traumatised: “How could he not have known [about her life as an artist and photographer]? ‘When Lee closed something, she closed it,’ he said firmly. “I knew she was handy with a camera when I was little – but that was about it. She never talked about the war.”

A surreal approach can be a way to escape from, challenge or play with reality, or a way to return to a heightened, magical view of life, a more child-like perspective. Viviane Sassen is very much of this view, seeing mystery, atmosphere and memory as her focus rather than prioritising absolute clarity of context, position or form. “I’m not interested in making statements, I usually don’t believe in them” she says. “I’m much more interested in confusion, the unknown. I think that doubt is underrated.” She describes her intention as wanting a “round” image, “I want to leave out distractions and simplify my images, so viewers can’t really grasp or relate to the situation. They’re lost, in a sense, which I like. For me, it’s a way to make these works less about a specific subject and more about a feeling, a broader message, which allows them to behave more like archetypes.”

The aim for doubt, to disrupt the clarity of time and place is anti-ethical to the principles, or rather purpose, of fashion photography, and in some ways most applications of photography, which has so much to do with the specifics of time. In Sassen’s view, “photography is a magical thing”: “It somehow connects the real and the unreal, the past and the present. It’s like a magical portal into a parallel universe. Working with photography makes me into a little bit of a magician, which I love.” And while Sassen works more within the recording and conjuring of feeling, Miller was very much focused on recording life as it happened, on the real, even when framing it in the uncanny. Having originally worked as a fashion photographer, with the outbreak of WW2 she shifted to reportage. Perhaps her most famous image from the period, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, taken in 1945, exemplifies her approach. There’s little room for confusion in the composition or intention, with Miller both nonchalant and defiant, curled up in the bath; her boots dirty with mud from Dachau soiling the bathmat. She’d been one of the first to arrive at Hitler’s secret apartments after it had come under US control, and would later recall the moment with something close to disregard for the strength of her response. In Janine de Giovanni’s aforementioned New York Times piece, she quotes an interview Miller did with celebrity radio interviewer Ona Munson, where she spoke about the photograph: “‘Naturally I took pictures’ [said Miller] in her deep movie-star voice. ‘What’s a girl supposed to do when a battle lands in her lap?’”

Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bath features in the Hepworth exhibition, and while it’s an example of her practice that sits outside of the Surrealist tradition, it’s haunting and strange, in a way that only reality can be. It’s intimate and detached, private and public, both calm and full of rage.

On the complexity of navigating the personal and public, or political, in photography, particularly in the context of art practice, Sassen says: “While I’m in the act of photographing, I never really think of the public; it’s usually a very intimate process. Once a photograph goes out into the world, gets exhibited, published, put online, it is out of my hands. It starts to lead its own life and I don’t have control over it anymore.” She continues, “It can easily be pulled out of its original context and become something else, sometimes even the complete opposite of what my intentions were. It’s rather useless to try to control that, since the viewer will project their own subjective thoughts and feelings on it – suddenly these images become mirrors, reflecting our own image. We’re all pre-conditioned by our personal history; photography as a medium is especially prone to this.”

In the same way that an audience is pre-conditioned by their personal histories, so is the photographer, or artist. Sassen readily admits that “most artists make self-portraits”: “In some instances it’s more obvious than others. In my work, all the themes are personal in one way or another. That’s the red line that runs through it. It’s only natural for me to make use of my memories, mix them up, revisit old ones, and put them in a new light. But then, I do like the idea of witchcraft.” Drawing upon her personal history – and recasting it in a way that’s focused more on magic and atmosphere than accuracy and clarity – allows for Sassen’s work to be accessible in a way that it may not be if it were more straightforwardly autobiographical.

Born in Holland, Sassen spent three years of her childhood in a village in the west of Kenya, and often returns to the memories of her time there. Although a brief period, it seems to be one that had a profound impact on her. In various photographic series’ and books, she draws upon her personal experience with almost child-like naivety. Although not interested in reconstructing her childhood specifically, she says: “I rather seek ways to allow the subconscious to flow, to reach a kind of child-like view on the world around me; a vision of wonder and freedom, unbiased by our preconceived ideas and prejudice, etc.”

As a medium, photography is intrinsically linked to political, colonial and historical baggage, a form for “othering” and exoticism; and Sassen’s work sits in an interesting, complex position – her experience of living in Kenya can’t be denied, and it’s a memory she certainly has ownership of, but it’s also a very specific one. A brief moment, which coincided with – as she acknowledges – a time when her vision was “of wonder and freedom”. It’s, in many ways, a positive outlook, but also one that lacks complexity, in a way that child-like expression often does. But on the other hand, that’s also part of what makes Sassen’s work so engaging – it’s challenging in its compositions, it’s full of contradictions, and doesn’t define clear positions formally or thematically. In certain instances, the abstract forms, vivid colours and energy of her photographs combine to make them appear as if they could be blurred visions speeding past in your peripheral vision. Sassen’s work makes you doubt yourself, and your assumptions about what you think you know and understand.

All text originally published by It’s Nice That. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.