The turn to aesthetics: An interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in
applied and philosophical aesthetics
Clive Palmer and David Torevell
Peter Lamarque, Heather Höpfl, Keith Owens, Steve Brie, Lynn Hilditch, Mark Wynn,
Donna Lazenby, David Clayton, Tim Prentki, Margaret-Catherine Perivoliotis-
Chryssovergis, Leila Hojjati, Patrick Carr, Graham McFee, Doug Sandle, Alexandra
Mouriki, Mark Titmarsh, Nikolaos Gkogkas, Avril Loveless, Cordula Hansen, Peter
Jordan, John Lindley, Neil Campbell, Joel Rookwood, Matthew Thombs, Clive Palmer,
Val Sellers, Stephan Wassong, Karl Lennartz, Thomas Zawadzki
Aesthetics of war: the artistic representation of war in Lee Miller’s WWII photographs
Liverpool Hope University Press,
Reporting on an international conference held at Liverpool Hope University 5th – 8th June 2007. This was a wide-
ranging inter-disciplinary conference which encouraged submissions from three general strands of study including;
those subjects which have enjoyed a substantial history of involvement in the field such as Theology and Philosophy,
those relatively new to the study such as Sports Studies and Management, and those which focus upon such applied
dimensions as the Arts and Education. The overall aim of the conference was to learn from interdisciplinary debate
and to encourage an exchange of ideas on research of the highest quality.
To reference this chapter:
Hilditch, L. (2008) Aesthetics of war: the artistic representation of war in Lee Miller’s WWII photographs (Chapter 5:
pp. 51-57). In Palmer, C. and Torevell, D. (Eds.) The turn to aesthetics: An interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in applied
and philosophical aesthetics. Liverpool Hope University Press, UK. ISBN: 978-0-9515874-3-6
Other research web host:
Aesthetics of war: the artistic representation
of war in Lee Miller’s WWII photographs.
Lynn Hilditch (Liverpool Hope University)
Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of the concentration camps taken at Dachau
and Buchenwald in April 1945 not only stand as historical records of the Holocaust,
documenting the horrors and atrocities of the Second World War, they also contain a
sense of aestheticism that makes them comparable to the war art of artists such as
Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz. Indeed, many of Miller’s
photographs of Dachau and Buchenwald can be equated to the war art produced
during and after the First World War, including the work of the Dadaists and
Surrealists, thus demonstrating that images of war may be interpreted as aesthetically
significant as well as historically informative.
In this essay, I aim to illustrate how Miller is able transform the most horrific scenes
of war into combinations of reportage and art by documenting the war through an
artistic eye, and in many instances, a surrealist eye. Miller was greatly influenced by
the Surrealists, working with Man Ray in the early 1930s; and, in particular, her work
can be analysed within the context of Andre Breton’s theory of ‘convulsive beauty’,
his idea that anything can be interpreted as beautiful, even the most disturbing or
horrific of subject. A scene of death and destruction can, therefore, be represented or
interpreted as something beautiful by convulsing it into its apparent opposite. So, by
using her in-depth knowledge and experience of art and her awareness of Bretonian
Surrealism, Miller is able to carefully compose the horrors of war into aesthetic
portraits of war.
Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others writes, “To find beauty in
war seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is a
beauty in ruins” (Sontag, 2003:67). For example, let us consider a photograph taken
by Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas in 1978. At first glance what we see is a
lush green landscape with rolling hills to the left leading out into the far distance and
down towards the mouth of a river estuary. This could be a stereotypical image
appropriate to an advertisement for tourism. But this is a war photograph. It is only
after our eye has been cast around this apparently idyllic natural landscape that our
eye is then ambushed as we are forced to focus on the subject in the foreground—a
headless corpse lying in blood-stained grass which seems to blend into the landscape
itself—reminding us that this is not a traditional landscape photograph but an image
of war. The ‘discovery’ of the human remains makes them rightfully the centre of the
photograph. This is “Cuesta del Plomo”, a well-known site of many assassinations
carried out by the National Guard during the Nicaraguan revolutionary war. It still
The Turn to Aesthetics
contains the aesthetic quality of a landscape photograph, it is essentially a landscape
photograph; but as with Miller’s war photographs, it contains a hybrid-aesthetic, a
combination of the aesthetic and the documentary, of art and war. But what is the
purpose of using aesthetics within this context? Does an artistic approach deem to
lessen the blow somehow or remove the initial element of shock for the viewer? Or is
evidence of an artistic eye the natural response from a photographer with an artistic
In a completely different type of war photograph, this time a portrait taken by Lee
Miller in 1945, Richard Calvocoressi compares Miller’s gruesome portrait of a dead
S.S. Guard who has committed suicide at Dachau to German artist Matthias
Grünewald’s “Detail of Isenheim Altarpiece” which shows the head of the crucified
Christ. He writes, “[Miller’s] photograph of the S.S. guard who has hanged himself
from a radiator recalls, even more shockingly [resembles], the head of Grünewald’s
crucified Christ, lending weight to the view that [Miller] perceived things in visual or
cultural terms before thinking of their moral implications (of which she was
nevertheless aware)” (Calvocoressi, 2002:14). The head of Grünewald’s Christ is
itself a fragment of a much larger artistic work. In comparison, the head of the S.S.
Guard is a fragment of an even larger horror, a photographic representation of death,
of the concentration camps and indeed of war itself. However, there is also a sense of
irony, irony being a common factor within the Surrealist movement, in comparing the
head of the Messiah and the head of a Nazi, thus suggesting a juxtaposition of good
and evil as well as art and war reportage. Miller’s photograph of the hanging guard
can also be compared to another artistic work, this time an engraving entitled
“Guerre” by Georges Rouault from 1926. This engraving again depicts the head of
Christ looking down over the bowed head of a dead soldier. Yet, in her photograph,
Miller has assumed the role of the Messiah by seeing and capturing the dead S.S.
Guard with her camera. However, while the soldier in Rouault’s engraving is
inevitably a victim of war, being observed by the protective figure of Christ, the S.S.
Guard is the enemy and is judged so through Miller’s documenting of his suicide.
There is evidence throughout Miller’s photo-essays, which she produced for Vogue
magazine during the latter years of World War Two, of her extensive knowledge of
art and its influence on her photography. For example, in her writing there are often
direct references to art and specific art works, probably stemming from her research
in Florence in 1929 and her studies of Renaissance art in particular. For example, in
one of her photo-essays “Unarmed Warriors” Miller describes how the “clench-faced
men” were treating three patients with broken-limbs. She writes, “In the chiaroscuro
of khaki and white I was reminded of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, ‘The Carrying of
the Cross’” (Miller, 1944:36). In the same photo-essay, she compares the sunny
morning at the 44th Evac Hospital in France to “a landscape painter’s morning”, and
refers to “the doctor with the Raphael-like face” (Miller, 1944:82, 85). In her photo-
essay “St Malo”, Miller comments, “I had thought that watching a battle from a
hillside had gone out with the glamorous paintings of Napoleon” and describes two
little girls as “pixie twins, exactly like the little imps at the bottom of the Cistine
Madonna” (Miller, 1944:51, 80).
Miller’s use of the surrealist principle of fragmentation in her composition is
commonplace throughout her Dachau and Buchenwald photographs. One photograph
simply entitled “Buchenwald, Germany, April 1945” effectively shows how Miller’s
eye for composition and form was apparent even in the most horrific of environments.
The photograph can be divided diagonally, or fragmented into two halves, to
symbolise the thin line between life and death. The bottom left half of the image
consists of a large pile of charred remains, small pieces of bone, fragments of human
bodies. In contrast, the top right half of the photograph contains the legs of four
men—survivors—three still wearing the striped trousers of their prison uniforms,
standing over the remains. The four men stand silently, hands behind their backs,
observing the sight before them, a sight which has been replicated via Miller’s camera
lens. Although only their legs and the bottom half of their torsos are present within
the frame, it is easy to imagine the reflective expressions on their faces, the awareness
that the fragments of bones could so easily have included their own.
A very similar photograph captioned by Antony Penrose as “Newly dead bodies piled
outside the huts awaiting disposal” also uses this diagonal composition as well as an
effective use of light and shadow again to symbolise the close relationship between
life and death. In this photograph the bottom left half of the image, which has been
thrown into shadow, contains a row of corpses, some covered in army blankets
indicating that death only occurred after liberation, while some remain exposed.
Miller cleverly uses the shadow to symbolise death by allowing the corpses to
become submerged in the darkness. The top right half of the image, however, shows a
line of prisoners, some of whom are facing towards the shadow, observing the dead.
Others wait, perhaps for food or possibly for their inevitable release, moving in a
steady stream out of the right-hand side of the frame to freedom. This scene of death
and rebirth might be compared to Max Beckmann’s 1918 painting “Auferstehung
(Resurrection)” produced during the aftermath of World War One and depicting
anguished, twisted figures in a disjointed landscape. The fact that Miller has
photographed the living prisoners bathed in light is symbolic of life, rebirth, freedom
and survival. Miller has also used the Dada principle of polarisation by including the
polar opposites of life and death, and indicating a relationship between the negative
and the positive, the past and the future, despair and hope—all demonstrated through
her creative use of composition, light and an artistic eye.
In another untitled Buchenwald photograph, Miller has used composition to create a
kind of abstract form by filling the frame with the random, merging shapes of body
parts to ensure that the viewer takes in the entirety of the horror of the scene through
the confrontation of detail. The photograph creates a feeling of entrapment because
there is no escape for the eye just as there was no escape for the subjects in the image.
The viewer’s eye is at first drawn to the face in the centre of the scene. The viewer is
then forced to look around that face at the jumble of body parts, in particular the
hanging skeletal limbs. In this photograph, as with many of her other concentration
camp photographs, Miller is effectively capturing just one small fragment of a much
larger atrocity but doing so by using carefully organised composition to allow, even
manipulate, the viewer’s eye to interpret the image in a particular way, to see what the
photographer or even the prisoners would have seen.
Besides Miller’s use of creative composition and aesthetic form, her knowledge of
Surrealism is always very apparent in her photographs of the concentration camps.
The Turn to Aesthetics
For example, in “Murdered Prison Guard, Dachau, 1945” Miller has photographed the
body of an S.S. Guard killed and thrown into a nearby canal by his own prisoners
following the camp’s liberation. Carolyn Burke writes:
Miller uses light, shadow and the properties of water to suggest that the guard’s death
is justified, yet redemptive. The mysterious beauty of the image, which seems to
dissolve the man’s features as he sinks beneath the surface, implies the larger issues –
[of] responsibility, memory, grief (Penrose, 2001:132).
This medium close-up of the guard floating towards a watery grave shows how Miller
has not only recorded the scene but has transformed a grim episode into a portrait of
convulsive beauty. In other words, by interpreting Miller’s photograph as an example
of Bretonian Surrealism, one can see how the guard has been transformed—or
convulsed—from a figure of hatred into an intriguing image of aestheticism. Miller
has used diagonal composition, which helps to create the artistic feel of the image. As
Mark Haworth-Booth writes, Miller’s well-lit, perfectly composed photographs
“remind us of Lee’s first-hand knowledge of Surrealism, and the idea of ‘convulsive
beauty’ and its many images of effigies…” (Haworth-Booth, 2007:194).
While many of her peers such as Margaret Bourke-White tended to take a photograph
and then quickly depart from the war scene, Miller preferred to stay and work on her
images’ composition and form, often taking photographs from positions that were
difficult and challenging both physically and mentally. For example, for a photograph
taken in Dachau showing two United States medics from the Rainbow Company
observing a dead prisoner, Miller had climbed into the partially-cleared Dachau
“death train” with the corpses to compose a photograph which forces the viewer to
adopt a stance next to the dead man. In another Vogue photo-essay entitled “Germans
Are Like This” from June 1945, Miller gave a detailed description of what she had
witnessed at Dachau:
Dachau had everything you’ll ever hear or close your ears to about a concentration
camp. The great dusty spaces that had been trampled by so many thousands of
condemned feet—feet which ached and shuffled and stamped away the cold and
shifted to relieve the pain and finally became useless except to walk them to the death
chamber (Penrose, 1992:188).
A photograph taken at Buchenwald entitled “Released Prisoner, Buchenwald,
Germany” (1945) captures those “condemned feet”. The recognisable striped legs of
the prisoner lead down towards the feet posed in what resembles ballet shoes as if
preparing for what Katherine Slusher describes as a “ballet of death” in the layers of
mended socks worn to prevent freezing during the bitterly cold German winter. As
Slusher writes, like many of Miller’s concentration camp pictures there is “an
excruciating and almost lyrical beauty” such as in the artistic comparison between a
prisoner who has been confined to a death camp and now released and a dancer who
is able to encapsulate freedom through the movement of body (Slusher, 2007:65).
Therefore, rather than a “ballet of death”, perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as
a “ballet of freedom” with the prisoner/dancer preparing for a “dance of joy and
It is also true that Miller’s war photographs inspired other artists, arguably due to
their aesthetic quality as much as for their documentary content. For example, in 1955
the Italian artist Rico Lebrun began his “Buchenwald Series”, a collection of
paintings produced as a reaction to World War Two and all inspired by news
photographs depicting dead prisoners in the concentration camp. One painting
entitled “Floor of Buchenwald No.1” (1957), painted in casein and ink, was based on
a photograph taken by Miller in 1945. However, after comparing the photograph and
the painting, the philosopher Raymond Durgnat describes Lebrun’s failure to grasp
the problem of transcribing this scene. Durgnat writes:
Lebrun, a sincere and intelligent painter, has missed over and over again telling the
details recorded by the camera’s ‘passive’ eye and substituted conventions of form, of
anatomy, of composition. Almost involuntarily he has brought compositional order
into a heap of bodies whose horrid eloquence lay precisely in the ‘asymmetrical’
clutter of thrown-back heads (Coke, 1972:111-112).
In contrast, Miller’s photograph records how the “thighs have become thinner than
calves, shows the clumsiness of home-made wrappings, stresses the hard pebbles on
which the bodies lie” (Coke, 1972:111-112). The painter, therefore, has been able to
manipulate the scene for the purpose of the painting. However, with Miller’s
photograph, the bodies appear to “bleed off one corner of the frame, so that we sense
that this is only part of a huger, and infinite horror” (Coke, 1972:111-112). While it is
true that Lebrun does ‘beautify’ the scene by giving the subjects within the painting
an unnatural grace and tidiness unlike the somewhat chaotic abstract form within
Miller’s photograph, it might, however, be argued that as with other photographs such
as “Buchenwald, Germany, April 1945” and her photograph of the dead prisoners
awaiting removal, Miller is able to create the same “compositional order” by seeking
out the natural form within the scene and capturing it to aesthetic effect. At the same
time, Miller produces a more immediate representation of the scene as opposed to
Lebrun’s second-hand interpretation of Miller’s photographic representation. As a
war artist, it is true that Lebrun would have had more control over the composition of
his painting than Miller who, as a war photographer, strived to capture what Henri
Cartier-Bresson referred to as “the decisive moment”. The painter does not have time
against him and can choose to make the thighs flatter or the pattern of the bodies
tidier. In this respect, his interpretation of the scene is a manipulated, reordered vision
of reality, unlike Miller’s raw depiction of the scene. The age of digital manipulation
and Photoshop, available to today’s photojournalists, was still some fifty years in the
future. Therefore, there is inevitably an element of honesty or truth that seems to be
lacking in Lebrun’s painting. With Miller’s photograph we are compelled to believe
the horror as a true representation of the scene, and as Plato wrote in The Republic,
both truth and knowledge can be deemed beautiful.
In comparison to Lebrun’s painted interpretation of the concentration camps, George
Grosz’s ink drawing entitled “Pandemonium” (1914) also provides a similar painted
scene of wonder and horror to that depicted by Miller in her Buchenwald photograph.
Barbara McCloskey describes the Grosz painting as a “claustrophobic tangle of men
and women whose flailing limbs thrust beyond the drawing’s margins”, a description
The Turn to Aesthetics
which could easily have been applied to Miller’s photograph (McCloskey, 1997:14).
Picasso, a good friend of Miller, painted another similar scene in 1945 entitled “The
Charnel House”, which may also have been inspired by Miller’s Buchenwald
photograph. Mark Stevens claims that Picasso was inspired by “the flickering black
and white palettes of the newsreels” and similar newspaper images (Stevens, 1999).
But although both Lebrun and Picasso were able to draw upon Miller’s photograph
for inspiration for their art, it is Miller who has been able to combine historical record
and a natural artistic approach to create this hybrid of documentation and
It seems that the main argument posed by Miller’s use of this hybrid-aesthetic is
whether war photographs should be considered as ‘artistic’ and what purpose an
aestheticised approach serves. In her photographs, however raw the subject, Miller
succeeds in capturing an image which combines aesthetic quality, through her
awareness of Surrealism and her creative use of composition and form, with
documentary evidence. As in war painting, Miller is able to produce visual
representations of horror that are not only reportage but at the same time artistically
seen. However, what we see with Miller’s war photography is an artistic knowledge
which has been drawn upon to create a hybrid image of aestheticism and
documentation. Evidence of the photographs’ aesthetic worth is also demonstrated by
their influence on painters including Picasso, who were not only inspired by the
atrocities captured in the photographs but also by the artistic vision of the
photographer who was able to record those scenes with a great sensitivity, a need to
inform, technical excellence and the presence of a surrealist eye.
Theorists such as Julia Kristeva have written about death and the representation of
death within the context of the ‘abject’. The abject is her reference to “the human
reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction
between subject and object or between self and other, the primary example for what
causes such a reaction being the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own
materiality)” (Felluga, 2002). However, Miller’s images of Dachau and Buchwald can
be more closely analysed by applying Breton’s theory of ‘convulsive beauty’. In this
respect, Miller’s concentration camp photographs are considered ‘aesthetic’ rather
than ‘repulsive’. Surely one of the most reproduced examples of convulsive beauty is
the artistic representation of the Crucifixion – the depiction of Christ dying on the
cross. This image of torture, sacrifice and death, has been interpreted in all art forms
and is displayed and adorned in a variety of formats from the traditional (painting,
sculpture, jewellery) to the modern (film, photography). Arguably, it is unlikely that
this mass-produced scene of death would be considered as an example of the abject,
and perhaps describing the event as an example of convulsive beauty would be
deemed sacrilegious. Nonetheless, the Crucifixion complies with both theories. In
comparison, the dead or dying in Miller’s photographs have also made a great
sacrifice whether it be for their family, home, country, religious, political or artistic
beliefs. Therefore, as an example of convulsive beauty, the subject of Miller’s
photographs, and indeed the images themselves, might be compared to and analysed
in the same way as art historians have interpreted historical or biblical scenes of war
and death, for example, Calvocoressi’s comparison of Miller’s hanging SS Guard to
Grünewald’s crucified Christ. So, to conclude with a quote from Jane Livingston:
It is not easy to deal with these Holocaust images, taken in circumstances unlooked
for, unprepared for, unimaginable, in stylistically analytical terms. But a few
observations may clarify the distinction between these photographs and others
depicting the same subjects. In these pictures, whether of murdered human remains,
the scenes of their making, or the terrified objects of uninhabited revenge, we are
presented with a nightmarish reality made somehow fully present. The perceptual
chaos that the artist must have been experiencing in confronting this pageant of
atrocities, somehow resolves itself in the camera’s eye into a group of images that are
legible, [and] unforgettable in the sense of classic art (Livingston, 1989: 82).
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