By MARYAM PHILPOTT
Had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would have been 90 on the 1st June – making her a few weeks younger than the Queen incidentally – and to celebrate this auspicious anniversary ONGallery is hosting a month-long exhibition of prints and photographs by some of the 20th Century’s most notable artists. The title of this exhibition appropriately references probably the most famous rendition of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song ever performed (to President Kennedy) which was sultry yet girlish, and Happy Birthday, Miss Monroe unites a vast collection of images from her early days as Norma Jean to the “Final Sitting” showing the many sides of this actress and icon.
Whatever you think of her and whoever you believed she was, there’s a version of Marilyn here for everyone. If you see her as someone who knew how to play the Tinsel Town game to get ahead, a shrewd manipulator of her own reputation then head towards Milton Greene’s prints of Marilyn Monroe as a Ballerina Awaiting Her Cue, Marilyn in a Black Derby and Not Much Else and Marilyn Monroe Goes Oriental with a Pekinese Dog. In all three images she’s confident, relaxed and completely in control; each is a direct challenge to the viewer, a confident shrug emphasising her sexuality and her gentler side. But maybe this Marilyn is not the one you know, what about the pin-up girl, who posed for playboy.
One of the 10 ‘unknown facts’ scattered around the walls indicate that Monroe was paid $50 to pose naked for Tom Kelly when she was still Norma Jeane Baker and Kelly sold the prints to Hugh Heffner for $500. Heffner, who has signed the print you can purchase for a mere £9000 at the exhibition, subsequently made millions from them. She posed also for Earl Moran and most notably for Bert Stern and Lavender whose ‘Last Sitting’ prints are full of a semi-naked Monroe veiled in a series of sheer but glittery fabrics. It’s easy to look at these in retrospect and see something ominous in them, the text accompanying them states she was told to look “sleepy” in order to bring out her “teasing sexuality” but in Pink Silk Shawl and Red Roses arguably she also looks drugged giving greater meaning to those final weeks.
Another Marilyn that exists here is the film star and Floyd McCarty’s picture of Monroe sitting beside Tony Curtis in the bath tub is an instantly recognisable still from Some Like it Hot while Eugene Kornman captures her knowing glamour on the set of Niagara and in a print called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn the icon was born in these pictures and a centrepiece of the show are several of Andy Warhol’s colourful Marilyn images, which he created from Kornman’s picture as a comment on her expanding fame after her death. Best among them is a silver, yellow and pink creation called Diamond Dust which can be yours for around £2000.
But finally what about Marilyn the vulnerable woman taken advantage of and controlled by unscrupulous Hollywood producers, photographers and agents. Her innocence exists in all the shots in some ways but Ed Cronenweth’s LA promotional adverts of her with a telephone book and near the city limits gives us a wholesome and pure young woman looking for a simple life. One of the best portraits is untitled and possibly not for sale, it depicts Marilyn barefaced in the make-up chair, no artifice, no characters, just in conversation and it’s this more than any other that stands out among all the other things she became.
Is the real Marilyn in here somewhere? If she is then Frank Worth feels like he came closest to finding her and his four images capture her almost unawares, in moments of candour whether she’s ‘having a laugh on a deckchair’ or smiling to herself. In each of the pictures she looks comfortable, beautiful and happy in a way that none of the other photographers seem to capture, whether she’s mid-billowy dress moment with Billy Wilder on The Seven Year Itch or leaning on a car door while beaming directly at the camera in what seems a genuine moment of contentment – whether it was, we will never be sure.
It’s impossible to imagine that Marilyn Monroe could ever have been 90. We have been absorbed with images of her in her 20s and 30s for so long that it’s easy to see an inevitability in her death that foreshadows the problems of celebrity many young stars still experience today. This fascinating collection, at The Showroom in Fulham, cleverly brings out all the contradictory elements of her personality, the vulnerable siren and the shrewd business woman controlled by men. Now up for sale, whoever she was, the world felt it owned Marilyn Monroe, and now so can you.
Runs Until 30 June 2016