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Art in the media: The personality eclipses art in programmes on Lee Miller and Tracey Emin

Miller and Emin on ITV1’s South Bank Show, plus architecture of the future on Channel 5

Victim of rape at a young age, unconventional parenting; a mesmerising personality, and extraordinary sexuality: but, knowing all this, what bearing does it have on the art? The lives of Lee Miller, fashion and war photographer, and Tracey Emin, artist, have a curious similarity revealed in their recent retelling in full-length programmes on radio and television. Omnibus presented a documentary called “Lee Miller—a crazy way of seeing things”. BBC Radio 4’s On the ropes and ITVI’s The South Bank Show put the spotlight on Tracey Emin. The facts of their colourful lives are well known, and, as we were shown, their work is inextricably bound up with their personal stories.

But it is the nature of the art which the programmes set out to re-examine. After all, without the art, the programmes would not have been made. The balance is difficult and, although the programmes make fine judgements, finally, in each case, the personality eclipses the art.

Miller did not help help own case. At the end of the World War II she achieved fame, most notably for pictures recording the first sight of Dachau’s horrors and for her sensational scoop in photographing Hitler’s Munich residence. She washed the dirt of the concentration camp off in his bath, and pictured her friend lounging on the Führer’s sofa reading Mein Kampf.

This was the highpoint of her life. As a war correspondent, her appearance neglected, she achieved her ambition, professional equality with her male colleagues.

Thereafter, either from creative burn-out or lack of a corresponding challenge, her life suddenly lacked purpose. Excessive drinking aided her decline into rural obscurity.

As Antony Penrose, her only son by her second husband, the Surrealist artist Roland Penrose, tells us at the beginning of Lee Miller: “She might just as well not have been a photographer for all I know. After she died we were astonished to find in the attic box after box of negatives and manuscripts.” Towards the end, David Hare, screenplay writer of a forthcoming film about Miller and one of the most illuminating contributors to this documentary, says that she “didn’t help the interviewer. She would say, ‘I did a few things, but they weren’t important and anyway, it’s all been lost now.’” In between, Miller’s images, although deftly absorbed into a swiftly moving tapestry of period film footage, intercut with photos of the stunningly beautiful Lee, are almost never referred to directly. George Melly’s comment about “Portrait of space”, one of her Egyptian desert shots, is a rare exception.

“There’s one that’s absolutely famous in her work,” Melly tells us, “a tent with a torn sort of flap, so that you can see through the flap. It’s impossible to say why this image is so strong. She had this incredibly selective eye. She saw the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

In her determination to involve herself more deeply, she decided to write her own accompanying reports, thus “single-mindedly” shifting English Vogue from glossy magazine to the forefront of war journalism, the narrator tells us.

We have a taste of her writing in her report on the siege of St Malo: “I’ll never see acid yellow and grey again, like where shells burst in the snow, without seeing also the pale quivering faces of replacements, grey and yellow with apprehension, their fumbling hands and furtive, short-sighted glances at the field they must cross.”

Read against a photo on the screen, it is the image that evokes most powerfully the frightened glance. In Dachau she took shot after shot of the atrocities, driven, despite her disgust, to record the evidence.

Another photo-journalist Jacques Hindemeyer had to give up, so “abominable” was the experience: “I couldn’t carry on, but Lee Miller, she took the photographs I would like to have taken.”

But what finally is the legacy of this driven, “scandalously beautiful” woman (Melly), “the prototype of the new girl of the period … always beautiful” (Lucien Treillard, assistant to Man Ray), of this courageous, get up and go-er (Melly), who got the shots. Without a final verdict more might have been made to give those 40,000 discovered negatives pride of place and more time allowed to linger over them.

Tracey Emin has masses to say about herself and her art and says it in her work, on radio, TV, wherever. She knows how to use her celebrity status. And why not? On the South Bank Show we meet her first in the Colony Club sporting a spectacular cleavage and sipping drinks with her host, a radiant Melvyn Bragg, who hangs, apparently, on her every word.

Later we move to her studio. Lord Bragg has changed into casual gear, but Emin keeps up appearances. We only ever see the Emin phenomenon, the public, professional, PR expert, in her designer outfit. We never see her at work, or follow the progress of an idea. If you saw her Turner Prize show this programme adds little to the story, and gives you only glimpses of her creativity. If you are not enraged by her art, Emin is nothing if not entertaining and vivaciously draws the willing ear.

For a more challenging dialogue choose John Humphrys as interlocutor in a sober—from the sound of coffee cups, in place of alcohol—interview for “On the ropes”. Emin did not really fit the programme brief. She wasn’t exactly raped, although it was without her consent, she corrects Mr Humphrys. Discussions with Emin always become involved, shaped as they are to the logic of her own argument. Finally Mr Humphrys seeks clarity by asking her to help him in describing what she does.

Tracey Emin: At the grand old age of like 38 I’m making what I feel like making.

John Humphrys: Give me a definition for it.

TE: [sighs] It’s very difficult to give a definition of what I do. I feel something, or I believe something, or I witness something and then I’m somehow propelled to make this into a reality for other people to view. But everything I do is edited, so it’s not like…a gut reaction to something. Or like crying on my sleeve and then I’ll put in on the wall. It’s not that simple. I think this justifies somehow other people knowing about this, or another way for people to relate to something. Or maybe I want to tell people something, I think it’s important. Art for me is about communication.

JH: [quietly] But all art is about communication.

TE: [emphatically] No, it’s not. Some people are really hermetic and their art is about the internal kind of dilemma of the nothingness, for example, you know.

JH: But they’re still communicating that dilemma to an outside public

TE: Yes, but guess what? The outside public don’t get it, ‘cos it’s too hidden up. You know what I mean. [“Ah!”] My art is really clear. What you see is what you get [“Ah!”] and it’s the same with me. This is why I get column inches and loads of press. It’s really easy to understand what I’m doing. Even if you hate it, it’s still really easy.

JH: [sensing that he is reaching his goal] Well, let me take you up on that: easy to understand what you’re doing. Let’s go to your most famous or notorious, whichever word you prefer, work and that’s obviously the unmade bed—£150,000 from Charles Saatchi apparently, so somebody obviously thought it was a wonderful piece of art. An awful lot of people thought it was complete nonsense.

TE: Well, all the people that wrote pages and pages and pages about it, all the people that paid off their mortgage and their credit bills by writing about how crap I was, don’t think so. It was the best thing that happened to them in terms of journalism for art since Damien’s shark and since Carl Andre’s bricks.

JH: But that doesn’t prove anything does it?

TE: It does. It’s a seminal thing which the times in which we’re living for, they’re waiting for. And when I say “they” I mean the critics, the people. You know, the Tate has never had such long queues as people going to see my bed. There was a reason why people were going to see it. It might be ‘cos they want to laugh at it or they want to go, "Oh, it is just a bed", or whatever. But there’s another thing. If you have an icon, for example, the icon becomes an icon because of the amount of people that go to see it and revere it, not because it is an icon.

JH: But there will be intrinsic value in that icon.

TE: Yea, but there is for the bed.

JH: Ah! Now this is the question isn’t it? Do the people who go to see it, appreciate it and how do you persuade them that it exists. Because as a piece of art many people, I think probably it’s fair to say the vast majority of people, say, but actually it isn’t. It’s just an unmade bed! And a rather unpleasant one at that!

TE: [perhaps hoping to catch him out] Did you see it?

JH: Yea.

TE: [swallowing] Well, it’s really funny, when I first showed it …When I first saw it, it was in my bedroom, wasn’t it. And it meant something to me because of the situation I was in at the time.

And she goes on to repeat the story of her drunken stupor, of how after several days lying in the bed, she crawled out to get a glass of water. When she returned to the room she was at first horrified, but then saw the possibility of presenting the bed as a rather beautiful and meaningful object.

Emin will probably never convince Mr Humphrys. He certainly put her on her mettle, and she was rarely phased, knowing how, with disarming resilience, to defend her corner. But then, as she told us, “I am Tracey Emin.” And she signs off with: “I have to believe truly in what I’m doing, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s not a joke. It’s not a game. It’s what I do. Which is really important. [Pause] I’m genuine.”

“Buildings of the future” was another outstanding architectural series master-minded by Patrick Uden for Channel 5. Mr Uden knows how to make architecture star. The six-part series features varieties of futuristic building design—offices, countryside homes to escape to, city houses, public buildings, retail spaces, and huge industrial structures. All are pioneer designs and all but one, Oliver Salway’s virtual idea for a transportable, fold-away living area designed like a giant Swiss army knife, had been built and were demonstrated in use.

“I don’t believe that creativity needs to cost money,” says Ric Lee, chairman of Cellular Operations, a tele-communications company, whose futuristic premises we visited in the first programme. “What we wanted to portray was a high-technology company—young, efficient, good at what it does, but not miserable, having a good time doing it.”

These ideals were reiterated by architects and clients through the series and reflected in the series as a whole. The programmes were accessible, exciting, fun, stealthily educative. An excellent script was narrated by Tessa Wood, a quietly authoritative guide, who never obtruded on, or upstaged the architects or their clients, or the visual impact of 25 stunningly innovative designs. This superbly edited and beautifully composed series ensured that the building was the subject, never simply the illustration.

Omnibus “Lee Miller—a crazy way of seeing things”, BBC Scotland for BBC2, 25 August. Narrator Kirsty Wark. Series Producer Andrew Lockyer. Producer/Director Sarah Aspinall.

The South Bank Show: Tracey Emin, ITVI, 19 August. Presenter/Editor Melvyn Bragg. Director/Producer Aurora Gunn.

“On the ropes: John Humphrys in conversation with Tracey Emin”, BBC Radio 4, 24 July. Producer Brian King.

“Buildings of the future”, A Uden Associates Production for Channel 5, 5, 12, 19, 26 August , 2 and 9 September. Narrator Tessa Wood. Composer Tim Stone. Executive Producer Patrick Uden. Producer/Directors Jim Sayer and James Castle.

Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 29 August. Presenter John Wilson. Studio Production Robyn Read.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The personality eclipses art'