‘The Only Blonde in the World’

By Gabriella Sotiriou

She is believed to be the most photographed woman to have ever lived. She holds the record for the longest continuous shot of someone walking (116 feet of film). Her beauty and her carefully considered ‘look’ (she spent her lifetime finding that perfect shade of red - a mix of three lipsticks, petroleum jelly and wax) made her a thing that others desired to capture. She now has one of the most famous faces in history. Following her transformation from Norma Jean (her birth name) to Marilyn Monroe, she was sought after to grace film, photograph or canvas, the latter continuing long after her tragic death in 1962. Immortalised through art, she became a vital part of American history, a symbol for the height of glamour, epitomising what Hollywood can offer, yet a harsh reminder of the pitfalls that lay hidden beneath the champagne and sequins. 

Willem de Kooning captured Marilyn whilst she was still alive in 1954. He retains a figural quality in his abstract expressionist painting, allowing the iconic aspects of her to survive the abstraction. Her cloud of blonde hair, strikingly large blue eyes, black beauty mark and the perfected, stamped-on red lips are evident amongst the large loose brushstrokes. De Kooning employs a style that is dynamic, reminiscent of the highly recognisable sensual wiggle in Monroe’s movement. The flashes of colour into which the star collapses create a blur around her, suggesting the high-speed world of crowds, camera flashes and brightly coloured costumes, a world that would eventually absorb her entirely.

Willem de Kooning,  Marilyn Monroe,  1954, oil on canvas, Neuberger Museum of Art  https://www.neuberger.org/exhibitions.php?view=55

Willem de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, 1954, oil on canvas, Neuberger Museum of Art https://www.neuberger.org/exhibitions.php?view=55

Photographer Eve Arnold is best known for her photographs of Marilyn, a project that she began in the early 1950s. She aimed to capture a literal behind-the-scenes image of Monroe on set of The Misfits, her final film and a collaboration with her husband Arthur Millerduring the summer months of 1960. Arnold noted the way in which Monroe greatly understood the way the camera behaved and then managed to outsmart it, ‘so she got what she wanted’. In many of the images from this time, the star appears confused, out of touch with her surrounds and contemplative. The internal struggles of her relationship with Miller leaking out to be captured. In these images, we see the legend begin to falter, visual proof of her admittance to Arnold - ‘I’m thirty-four years old. I’ve been dancing for six months. I’ve had no rest, I’m exhausted’.

 Marilyn Monroe ‘appears raucously effervescent throughout the portrait series’ Marilyn Monroe: From ‘The Last Sitting’ created by Bert Stern in 1962. Marilyn Monroe on the Cross is one of the most famous images from this collection, as it was used in a spread in Vogue. Here, she appears nude behind a sheet of glass with a large, roughly drawn red cross, a later addition Stern made to the photograph. There are obvious references to Christian imagery that is put at a great contrast with her nudity and suggestive facial expression, as Stern captures the side of Marilyn considered as a sex symbol, the very side that became so scandalous after rumours emerged of her affair with President John F. Kennedy. The ghostly quality of Monroe in this photograph, along with the evocation of the crucifixion of Christ, are particularly haunting. This was the last shoot of Monroe.  
She died six weeks later.

Possibly the most famous image of Monroe is that created by Andy Warhol. Hijacking a publicity shot of the film star from Niagara in 1953, he made multiple screen prints, the first being the Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Made only a few months after Monroe died of a drug overdose, Warhol clearly wanted to create the work whilst the story was still hot, stating that he chose to create the images after ‘Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month’. Half the image is heavily coloured with orange, turquoise pink and yellow, to the point of being gaudy. The other half stands in great contrast, being entirely in black and white with Monroe at some points fading away completely. Warhol achieved this by manipulating the process of the screen print. Though the artist claimed that he never included a meaning in his work, there are some clear points to be drawn from Marilyn Diptych. The first being the emphasis in the artificiality of mass commercialisation through the distortion of her face. The second being a reflection of Monroe’s mortality as she disappears from the canvas. 

Pauline Boty was one of the few female artists to use Monroe as a muse. In The Only Blonde in the World she features as Sugar Kane, her character in Some Like it Hot. Unlike Arnold, Boty does not attempt to capture anything personal. Instead, she becomes what the perception of one of her fans viewing her from the screen would see, squeezed and taped between the blocks of abstract forms. This is an embodiment of Monroe’s statement, ‘I knew I belonged to the public and to the world…because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else’.

Pauline Boty,  The Only Blonde in the World,  1963, oil on canvas, Tate, St Ives.  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/boty-the-only-blonde-in-the-world-t07496

Pauline Boty, The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, oil on canvas, Tate, St Ives. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/boty-the-only-blonde-in-the-world-t07496

Monroe’s legacy continues into the twenty-first century with Parisian street artists Zevs. In his Visual Violations series, he takes an image of the star, yet blurs out her most iconic feature: her face. In doing this, Zevs takes a different approach than the previously mentioned artists. His ‘liquidation’ of the image suggests that, despite her continued cultural strength, Monroe is not invincible. 

 

Perhaps one of the most striking paintings of Monroe is Dead Marilyn, (2008) by Marlene Dumas, an example of the theme of celebrity and death that runs through her work. Based on a photograph of Monroe’s autopsy, Dumas transforms her into hues of blue, evoking the image of a cold corpse. The bluntness of the title is a harsh reminder that the icon is dead, emphasised by the sever lack of big hair, lashes and red lip. Through the emphasis on the face itself, the skin appears as though it is decaying. Doing so, Dumas is suggesting that, despite the figure beginning to rot and loose the beauty that helped gain her fame, the public is still eager for one last glimpse of Marilyn Monroe, no matter how gruesome.

Marlene Dumas,  Dead Marilyn,  2008, oil on canvas, Private Collection, New York.  https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/226/2923

Marlene Dumas, Dead Marilyn, 2008, oil on canvas, Private Collection, New York. https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/226/2923

Marilyn Monroe,  Jumping into the Frying Pan from the Fire,  c. 1960, watercolour on paper.  https://www.artsy.net/artwork/marilyn-monroe-jumping-into-the-frying-pan-from-the-fire

Marilyn Monroe, Jumping into the Frying Pan from the Fire, c. 1960, watercolour on paper.
https://www.artsy.net/artwork/marilyn-monroe-jumping-into-the-frying-pan-from-the-fire

Marilyn Monroe,  Making Love Sometime,  c. 1960, watercolour on paper.  https://www.artsy.net/artwork/marilyn-monroe-making-love-sometime

Marilyn Monroe, Making Love Sometime, c. 1960, watercolour on paper. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/marilyn-monroe-making-love-sometime

As well as her concern to be in front of the camera, Marilyn also had a significant interest in art and its history. It is known that she was a fan of Goya and Rodin, paying over a thousand dollars (roughly eight thousand dollars today) for a copy of The Hand of God in 1962. As her mental health declined, Monroe became obsessed with asking her psychiatrist what the gesture meant (many interpret the hand as being a representation of farewell and despair). Julien’s Actions in Los Angeles held a sale of many of Monroe’s possessions. Objects included a recipe for stuffing, eight Philip Morris cigarettes and a used Revlon lipstick. Alongside these items were drawings, rough sketches of ‘lovemaking and morning-afters, old men on benches and women in fishnet stockings’, that had never been seen before in Conte crayon and paint. Though not of an outstanding quality, in these images, we can see the woman who drank on Michelangelo and Raphael and owned over 400 books on art, philosophy and history. The expertise of these masters in art were studied and used to make herself the most photographed woman in history. In these ‘flawed, yet heartfelt sketches, Norma Jean is separated from Marilyn, and the human from the icon.

HASTA