Marilyn at MAMA

February 19, 2016
Marilyn Monroe, Source for Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ Series, c. 1953. Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Image provided by The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Marilyn Monroe, Source for Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ Series, c. 1953. Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Image provided by The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

“Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end…” sang Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Yet Marilyn would never lose her charms, cheating old age by dying at the age of 36, fixing her image forever as the glamorous blonde starlet we see in Hollywood classics such as Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) or Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

From the moment the actress was found dead from a drug overdose, in August 1962, the process of mythologisation has never ceased. Was it suicide or an accident? Was it murder? Despite the conspiracy theories it would be foolish to imagine we’ll ever know the truth. In death, as in life, Marilyn remains a famous but ambiguous image – an image no less contested than the coroner’s report on her death.

Monroe’s status as a sex symbol will survive for all eternity but she is also the tragic heroine of Elton John’s syrupy pop song, Candle in the Wind. Norman Mailer, in a monograph in which every insight is undone by grossness of expression, called Monroe “a Stradivarius of sex”, and compiled a catalogue of her contradictions. Critics are still arguing about whether or not Monroe could act, because most of her on-screen roles required her to be nothing more than the dumb blonde. One sees a more polished actress in films such as Bus Stop (1956), or that melancholy tale, The Misfits (1961).

The single image that has come to define Marilyn as a brand is Andy Warhol’s screenprint, taken from a portrait photo by Gene Korman used as a publicity still for the film, Niagara (1953). Warhol made his first set of twenty silkscreens over a four-month period immediately following Monroe’s death. He would revisit the image so many times I can’t imagine how many prints are now in circulation, not counting the posters that borrow from the prints. Nothing could better symbolise the celebrity-as-commodity than the mass reproduction of these lurid portraits.

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962

The best of all Warhol’s efforts may be the Marilyn Diptych of 1962, which features two panels each containing 25 small faces. The ones of the left are brightly coloured, while the ones of the right are as pale and sooty as a poor-quality photocopy. It’s life versus death, image versus reality.

The celebrated diptych didn’t make it into Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon, at the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA). This collection of photos, paintings, works on paper and film clips, is a testimony to the volume and diversity of material that has been generated by the Marilyn cult.

Heidi Popovic , Marilyn Contemporary (2008)

Heidi Popovic , Marilyn Contemporary (2008)

Four typical Marilyn silkscreen portraits are credited: “After Andy Warhol”, meaning they are examples of ‘business art’ turned out by the artist’s studio. Four similar works by Austrian artist, Heidi Popovic, called Marilyn Contemporary (2008), show a skull instead of a face. It may be a comment on the necrophiliac nature of Warhol’s art, or a suggestion that Marilyn has become what Sarah Churchwell, in her book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, calls “a dead metaphor”. That is, a figure adaptable to every form of cliché.

The paintings in this show, put together by an American exhibitions agency, are a strange mixture of minor works by wellknown artists, and major pieces by lesser-known practitioners from Europe and America. There is, for instance, a suite of sketches by Richard Lindner, along with prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, Arnulf Rainer, Robert Indiana and Mimmo Rotella. These are the artists I’d call “wellknown”, but none of them has one iota of Warhol’s public profile. MAMA has also added a couple of paintings by Australia’s most prolific Pop artist, Richard Larter.

Hinnerk Bodendieck's Marilyn Monroe

Hinnerk Bodendieck’s Marilyn Monroe

Some of the more eye-catching pieces belong to artists such as Hinnerk Bodendieck of Hamburg, who has made a light-box painting that shows Marilyn’s torso as a collection of illuminated intestines. One thinks of those lengthy discussions on her autopsy found in every biography. It also reminds us there was flesh-and-blood behind the brand.

The best part of the show – in terms of both quality and quantity – are the photographs, taken by figures such as Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Eve Arnold, Alfred Eisenstadt and Bert Stern (although not, alas, Richard Avedon, who produced one of the greatest portraits). It’s a study in contrasts, with Beaton’s work being as ornate as a Baroque sculpture, while Cartier-Bresson captures Monroe in an introspective mood on the set of The Misfits.

Marilyn Monroe photographed on set of 'The Misfits' by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Marilyn Monroe photographed on set of ‘The Misfits’ by Henri Cartier-Bresson

There is a sequence of photos documenting the filming of the famous scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955) where Monroe stands over a grate and has her skirt raised by a gust of air. The shoot was a publicity stunt that took two hours, and was watched by 2,000 spectators along with hundreds of cameramen. In the photos we see the leering faces of men ogling Monroe’s legs, and flashes of fatigue or irritation on the actress’s face.

MAMA secured its own publicity coup when a local businessman, Colin Glassborow, contacted curator, Bianca Acimovic, and told her he had a cache of original Marilyn Monroe photos that had never been exhibited. Glassborow was bequeathed the pictures by a photographer friend, Arthur Meyers of Hollywood, who had been commissioned to follow the 23-year-old actress around for a day. Monroe is shown attending a sporting stadium, a dinner and a nightclub – in company with Roddy McDowall.

Probably the most remarkable thing about these photos is that they were found in Albury, but they form a curious time capsule for 1949, when Monroe was virtually unknown. She had chosen the name “Marilyn Monroe” in 1946. Her acting career since then had been nothing more than a series of bit parts, as she was picked up and dropped by the studios. In the same year she was forced to earn money from modelling, posing for a series of nude photographs taken by Tom Kelley, also included in this exhibition. How tame they seem in comparison with the quasi-pornographic images favoured by today’s crop of celebrities.

Monroe’s first noticeable appearances, in films such as Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, wouldn’t come along until 1950. She started on the road to stardom in 1953, when she scored three significant roles, although her pay languished behind her co-stars. Jane Russell reputedly received ten times as much for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Albury has pulled out all the stops for this show. The town is covered in pink flags and lights. There are Marilyn Monroe quotations on posters in shop windows. It’s worth going to see a city that is so supportive of arts and culture when other councils in NSW, from Broken Hill to Coffs Harbour, are working to destroy the galleries and audiences that have been built up over many years.

The new art museum is a part of a broadranging civic transformation. In the space of one day I was taken to two excellent restaurants, and a bar-bistro, Boom Boom, that would be a stand-out in Sydney or Melbourne. Accommodation was courtesy of the Atura, which is the kind of arty, sophisticated hotel previously inconceivable in a country town. If that sounds like a plug for Albury tourism I make no apologies. The town has understood that arts and lifestyle are closely related when it comes to attracting visitors and new residents.

The Albury exhibition is the first of two Marilyn Monroe exhibitions in regional Australia. From 5 March – 10 July Bendigo Art Gallery will be holding a show featuring original costumes from the actress’s movies and her personal wardrobe, along with studio material relating to a dozen films. On first impressions the Bendigo exhibition looks the more substantial affair, in line with the kind of touring blockbusters for which this gallery is renowned.

For at least two months there will be a unique opportunity to drive down to Bendigo via Albury, and see two Marilyn events organised independently of each other. Carry on to Melbourne, and there are more Marilyns in the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei show at the National Gallery of Victoria. Although Marilyn Monroe may be a dead metaphor, as one of Hollywood’s secular saints and martyrs she continues to exert an immortal appeal on the public imagination.

Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon
Murray Art Museum, Albury, until 8 May

John McDonald flew to Albury as a guest of Destination NSW

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20th February, 2016