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Marilyn Monroe as Icon

Marilyn Monroe and Fine Art

Marilyn has fascinated fine artists for many years. This striking, 40-inch clay sculpture is by Canadian artist Christopher Rees.
Marilyn has fascinated fine artists for many years. This striking, 40-inch clay sculpture is by Canadian artist Christopher Rees.

The enormous popularity of Marilyn Monroe and her widespread identification as a sex symbol has led to the appropriation of her image by fine artists. Often, their intention is to use her image and to comment on its power as they evoke ideas regarding sexuality, commercialism, and exploitation in our society.

Marilyn's career corresponded to an era in American art when painters began to explore the potential of popular imagery for expression. This exploration would culminate in the pop-art movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Pop artists were inspired by the ability of the mass media and advertising to generate images and emblems that quickly settle into our culture as commonly shared experiences. They were fascinated with the manner in which popular images could immediately suggest a product or communicate an idea.

Some of these artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg, took familiar popular images out of their original contexts and transformed them into fine art, elevating them to the level of abstract ideas. In effect, the artists blurred the line between popular culture and fine art.

Marilyn Monroe, with her emblematic quivering lips and trademark white-blonde hair, became the high priestess of pop art -- often celebrated as a symbol of female sexuality but sometimes used to condemn society's commercialization of sex.

Early examples of her image in fine art include a 1954 painting by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Though not a pop artist per se, de Kooning depicts Marilyn in his characteristic painterly style.

Broad brushstrokes of raw paint create a thick texture from which Marilyn's image is suggested, only to collapse again into the chaos that momentarily gives her form.

In de Kooning's painting, Marilyn Monroe has been reduced to her most recognizable features -- a black beauty mark and a broad, red mouth.

Perhaps her first appearance in a pop-art context was in "This Is Tomorrow," a famous 1956 exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery. A photo of Marilyn from the The Seven Year Itch, with her skirt blowing high above her hips, was integrated into a work by Richard Hamilton that involved popular imagery from that era.

That Marilyn's popularity reached worldwide proportion is indicated by her presence in European art as well, including a 1964 pop-art collage by Mimmo Rotella called "Marilyn Decollage."

A large photo of a bare-shouldered Marilyn occupies the center of the piece. The photo is strategically ripped at her cleavage, underscoring the play on words between "collage" and "d├ęcolletage."

The most memorable use of Marilyn's image in fine art is in Andy Warhol's silk-screened paintings, which offer a disturbing commentary on the commercialization of Marilyn Monroe.

Warhol first used Marilyn's image in 1962 for a silk-screen-on-canvas entitled "The Six Marilyns," or "Marilyn Six-Pack."

He chose a promotional photograph of the actress from the film Niagara, blew up her face to tremendous proportions, and silk-screened the image onto a canvas six times. He manipulated the image slightly by using garish greens and magentas for the eyes and lips and by placing the color slightly off-register.

Marilyn's fame rested on her face, especially her red, luscious lips. During her life, she worked hard to accentuate her lips, using a blend of three shades of lipstick plus a secret mixture of petroleum jelly and wax.

Warhol's painting purposefully distorts her face and lips, emphasizing the artificiality of her image and implying that it was a crass commercialization of that image that led to Marilyn's downfall.

Warhol recycled his portrait of Marilyn in a number of silk-screens-on-canvas throughout the 1960s, occasionally using it as wallpaper in installation pieces. He often changed the colors on the mouth and eyes, but always used the same photograph.

No matter which of the versions of the piece is looked at, it remains the ultimate expression of Warhol's interest in the nature of fame and celebrity.

Sculptors of another variety altogether dedicate themselves to turning out blatantly commercial items such as this mug and salt-and-pepper set.
Sculptors of another variety altogether dedicate themselves to turning out blatantly commercial items such as this mug and salt-and-pepper set.

The use of Marilyn's image in fine art reached its high point during the beginning of pop art's decline in the late 1960s.

In an acknowledgment of her identity as the high priestess of pop art, the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan curated a 1967 exhibition entitled "Homage to Marilyn," which included Marilyn-inspired works by de Kooning, Warhol, Oldenburg, George Segal, and Salvador Dali. Culturally speaking, then, Marilyn is as much a figure of the 1960s as of the 1950s.

If fine artists have sometimes utilized Marilyn's movie-star image to represent an abstract idea, then popular art embraces her image to celebrate the woman. Three decades after her death, Marilyn's face and figure adorn a wide array of items -- from greeting cards to playing cards, from ceramic figurines to bedsheets.

Appealing to a more fan-oriented crowd, a figure of Marilyn graces Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. The wax figure, created in the late 1950s, has been periodically updated to reflect changes in Marilyn's public persona.

In a less commemorative fashion, her image continues to be used to move merchandise and promote products in commercial advertisements, including print ads, billboards, and television commercials.

The art, the products, the books, the films, the rumors, the commemorations -- all of these -- are reflections of Marilyn's unique longevity. Despite the fact that her life, career, and problems are deeply rooted in the 1950s, she continues to delight us with her talent and astonish us with her beauty.

Figurines are a familiar element of the Marilyn Monroe-merchandise phenomenon.
Figurines are a familiar element of the Marilyn Monroe-merchandise phenomenon.

In the hearts of many, she remains unsurpassed. Yet, her death casts a dark shadow over her image.

We see that her innocence made her vulnerable, and that her personal tragedies carried her life to a sad and premature conclusion. The circumstances of her death continue to haunt us, for in death she has accomplished something she could not in life.

We see her today as something more than just Marilyn Monroe the sex symbol. Her image has a duality to it now: Though she remains an icon of sexuality, that part of her image is undercut by the harshness of her life.

Often used as a symbol of Hollywood, the image of Marilyn Monroe at once celebrates the town's glamour while reminding us of its pitfalls.

The longevity of Marilyn's celebrity may result in part from the lessons she continues to teach us. In addition to the symbolic powers of her visual image, her life and career have been used to demonstrate any number of issues, from the hypocrisies of the film industry to the frequent victimization of women in a male-dominated society.

Undeniably -- and perhaps most important of all -- her image and legend have the power to move us in ways that cannot be intellectualized. On a basic, visceral level, she is a remarkably powerful part of our lives and our culture.

She belongs to us now -- something Marilyn herself acknowledged in her unfinished autobiography. "I knew I belonged to the public and to the world," she wrote, "not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else."