ONE torn mesh sheath reveals a dry, desolate landscape. Light pours in beyond the horizon and our focus shifts through the two contrasting frames towards the cloud that dominates the sky. There is a sense of stillness as we look out onto a wide open desert; an ignorance of what lies beyond the torn curtain and what is to come. Liberation, with the elegant shape of the cloud evoking a dove flying in the distance. But most of all, there is an absence, as if there was something of significance that once filled this void.
Portrait of Space is by Lee Miller, the American-born photographer at the forefront of the surrealist movement of the 1920s and 30s. She went on to be instrumental in documenting the efforts of women during World War II and photographed the atrocities of the Holocaust. This photo, taken in Egypt in 1937, is from a time when she was on her way between two stages. Her life in the flourishing avant-garde Paris was behind her, and before her lay adventures in England, where she took pictures of the war for British Vogue. For Miller, her time in Egypt was marked by loneliness, as she found it stifling to live with a foreign community. The image could therefore be read as an expression of isolation or longing to escape.
In Portrait of Space we are unsure of what we are looking at. In a way, it is a portrait of nothingness – a sparse, rocky plateau that does not bear witness to where we are geographically or historically. But at the center there is a rift that means something is broken and nothing will ever be the same. The mesh sheath material billowing in the wind feels evocative of the transitory and fleeting nature of life.
Evoking a threshold between inner and outer, the blur of life and death or the surreal preoccupation of the unconscious and conscious mind, the image could be read as a symbol of the end of an era or being on the brink of something new. It is in such a period of transition that we find ourselves now, between mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the festive coronation of King Charles III. It is one of the most significant societal changes that many of us will witness in our lifetime.
It is difficult to know which artwork to use to signify this new era and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II – a woman who wielded so much power and lived a life with a remarkable, self-sacrificing sense of duty, born into a generation that seems foreign compared to the one we find ourselves in now, and whose image is ingrained in our lives, on our coins, stamps, mailboxes, banknotes. Through wars, pandemics, revolutions and flows of new leaders, she has been an almost invincible figure. So what happens when she is no longer there?
The era of King Charles III is full of unknowns. He will be crowned to a world very different from the one his mother took over, so much older than she was. Society is a far different place than it was in 1952, and progress and changes must be made in place. In these 10 days of mourning, we stand on the threshold between the old and the new guard.
Images have great power. In times of grief and loss, they can provide comfort, be places we go to reflect, help us understand a time and show us something about the world – regardless of the era in which they were produced. This is what we find in Portrait of Space: a simple image of a gap – reminiscent of a chasm in our culture – and a desolate landscape to be reborn. A tear in the social structure that we have known all our lives.