“Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon” Takes a Dualistic Approach to the Legendary Starlet

Image is everything. At least that’s what they say. But behind every image is a story, and sometimes that story is more complex than the image may suggest. In fact, it usually always is. Marilyn Monroe is the perfect example of this complexity and behind her public image is a story that’s so multifaceted it has transfixed the imagination of generations—a fascination that’s persisted long after her untimely death.

“Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon,” which runs through the end of July at the Jepson Center, views this legendary personality through two very different lenses. As you walk into the first gallery of the show, you encounter a variety of contemporary art that uses Marilyn as inspiration for a myriad of different takes on the cult of celebrity, death, and Marilyn as creative muse. The work ranges from Andy Warhol’s famous screen prints (iconic in their own right) to the endlessly fascinating mixed-media collage by Peter Beard, which incorporates everything from a used toothpaste tube to snake scales scattered amongst dozens of squiggly little figures dancing around a mermaid Marilyn.

Dead Elephant Book Diary, Marilyn Monroe, Peter Beard, 1971-2001
Photography/Mixed media on silver gelatin print

Past the first gallery is a room with a video playing clips of Marilyn at the height of her success next to the promo shot that everyone should be familiar with. It’s from Monroe’s racy scene in the Seven Year Itch where she’s standing over a subway grate as a gust of wind blows up her skirt—a photo that was declared “Symbol of the Century” by MoMA. On a wall adjacent to that photo is an image that at first glance may look to be a

Promo Still from “The Seven Year Itch”, (1955) dir. by Billy Wilder

duplicate, but upon further inspection one notices that something is clearly not right about it. The angle of the photo is much more of an “up-skirt” shot and the model’s head has been cropped in half. The photo is in fact by Zoe Leonard, an artist who is known for asking feminist questions about the “power of the male gaze” and should lend a very different perspective to the Seven Year Itch image.

The small room between the two gallery spaces serves as an interesting transition between the two parts of the exhibition. In the back gallery are the photographs many more may be familiar with (and the ones that many probably came to see). Here we have Marilyn in all her glory, with maybe a few glimpses of her impending tragedy. The photos are generally organized chronologically and include the infamous Playboy nudes—though compared to the now ubiquitous soft-core porn in advertising, “infamous” may be too strong a word. The selections also include an ultra-swank 1956 photo of Marilyn and playwright Arthur Miller driving in a Thunderbird convertible with the top down, Marilyn in movie-star-fab sunglasses and Miller with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, on their way to Connecticut shortly after they married.

As with Marilyn herself, this show can be viewed through whatever scrim the viewer brings to it. If you want to see the Hollywood glitz and glamor, you will. If you want to see the vulnerability and sadness behind those seductive eyes, you can find that too. It’s all there. But as Telfair’s Director and CEO Lisa Grove has pointed out, this show is really about celebrating an icon, not mourning her. The exhibition is structured in a way that allows everyone to enjoy the vivacious life of a star from Hollywood’s halcyon days whose light still burns to this day, and it also allows them to soak up some contemporary art while they’re at it (in an adjoining gallery, the Kirk Varnedoe Collection provides a great complement to the Marilyn show).

1956: Marilyn Monroe during a press party held at her home in Los Angeles
Image Credit: Michael Ochs Archives

Of course this show isn’t all about the doom and gloom, but it’s hard not to notice the dark edges, as the quote by Monroe that’s included above the photo of her and Miller underlines: “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul.”

It’s difficult not to look at some of these images—especially those from photographer Bert Stern in the shoot later dubbed “The Last Sitting,” where Monroe clearly doesn’t seem quite right—and not feel some twinge of sadness. Entering the world as Norma Jeane Mortenson (then changed to Baker), the woman who came to be known as Marilyn Monroe was born into tragedy—from her early troubles being shuffled from one foster home to the next and her potential early sexual abuse, to her tragic end in “probable suicide.” But in between those horrible bookends she managed to create a body of work and construct an image of the perfect American icon that is still celebrated and memorialized to this day, and that’s more than testament to her incredible strength and resolve and that’s what should also be remembered.

This exhibit will be on view at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts (207 W York St.) until July 27, 2014.

Kristopher Monroe

Author: Kristopher Monroe

Kristopher Monroe is a member of the board of Art Rise Savannah and writes about art and culture for various publications, including The Atlantic, Playboy, Dazed & Confused, Juxtapoz, and many others. He’s also a regular contributor for Savannah Morning News and is trying to finish the novel he moved to Savannah to complete before people stop taking him seriously when he talks about it.

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