Preview: Viviane Sassen
and Lee Miller

Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen’s work is on show in Wakefield, alongside photos by surrealist pioneer Lee Miller

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“I’ve been interested in surrealism for as long as I remember, starting with children’s books when I was young,” explains artist Viviane Sassen. “What triggered me was the fact they bent reality – they were like a dream-world, a look into the subconscious.”

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen studied fashion design, progressing to a master’s degree in fine art before the world of professional photography – another childhood fascination – beckoned. Working behind the lens allowed her to further explore surrealism and its power to transform the rational. “I’ve always liked the idea of parallel universes that seem strange yet familiar and photography has that magical component, although it has to deal with ‘the real world’ as well so I like the paradox. Plus, I had this enormous drive to be in control over the image.”

Her subsequent career has encompassed commercial, editorial and fine art photography yet Sassen feels she has successfully infused each discipline with her love for the surreal. She talks of the “blurred lines” between commercial work and fine art and how working to tight deadlines in the editorial world produces a special energy that reflects in the finished product. And, as anyone familiar with her photographs will attest, Sassen’s signature leitmotifs are always recognisable.

“The blurring of solid and shadow which I use tries to tell us there is no such thing as one truth or one reality. And the reason I often obscure the face of models is this makes the image more universal, so the viewer can project their own thoughts and feelings. I like images that don’t give themselves away too easily and I believe photography is by no means capable of telling the truth – all is a matter of perception, of context.”

Above: Bathing Feature by Lee Miller. Main image: Belladonna by Viviane Sassen, who says: “I think we share a love for the surreal, often with a humorous twist.”

It’s this obfuscation of lines, this rendering familiar into unfamiliar and redefining of context, that Sassen is showcasing with Hot Mirror, a solo exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield. Images from the previous two decades are presented non-chronologically, thereby creating, “new visual stories”. An updated version of the immersive Totem, an interactive work designed to combine the shadow of the viewer with video projections, will also be displayed.

Running concurrently to Hot Mirror will be Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain. Like Sassen, Miller’s career spanned fashion, photojournalism and fine art, with the American-born pioneer becoming Man Ray’s apprentice during the 1920s before developing into what many regarded as the world’s leading surrealist photographer. Focusing on Miller’s time in Britain, helping develop this nation’s own surrealist scene, the exhibition will feature much of her own work alongside that of collaborators including Salvador Dali, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst and Henry Moore.

With such similar artistic paths, does Sassen feel comparisons to Miller are valid? “She’s such an icon so I feel uncomfortable comparing myself to her as she was the muse of so many legendary artists and her biography reads like a novel,” she replies. “But when it comes to photography, yes, I do feel a connection. My work is often a bit more distant, slightly more abstract and graphic, but I think we share a love for the surreal, often with a humorous twist.”

And can Sassen relate to Miller’s famous quote about photography being a “matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you”?

“Definitely,” she replies with a laugh. “Shake it or saw it!”

Viviane Sassen: Hot Mirror and Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain at the Hepworth, Wakefield until 7 Oct

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