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A view of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's installation Marilyn: Life as Legend. ((Ernest Mayer/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

She dated a famous athlete, wore tight skirts without panties and got drawn into a tragic car chase with the paparazzi. Before Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears and Princess Diana made headlines, there was Marilyn Monroe, the original Tabloid Blonde. Though her short life was marked by unhappiness and loss, her image, burnished by time and early death, has become a 20th-century icon.

In Marilyn: Life as Legend, a travelling exhibition currently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, photographers and visual artists — including Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy Lichtenstein — explore Monroe’s multilayered myth and its continuing hold on the public imagination.

The show features more than 175 representations of Monroe. For WAG curator Helen Delacretaz, the challenge was going beyond that famous face and va-va-voom figure to understanding how and why these images have become part of our culture.

"Obviously Marilyn was beautiful, but there are a lot of beautiful people in Hollywood," Delacretaz points out. "I think the reason she remained so captivating was her life story." For Delacretaz, the biographical background — Monroe’s loveless childhood, her rise to stardom and equally spectacular slide, her unhappy affairs and early death — formed a necessary counterweight to the glamorous visuals.

"I really tried to put Marilyn into context with the exhibit’s written material, to show that she wasn’t a two-dimensional dumb blonde, but a complex woman."

Marilyn Monroe, Ballerina Sitting, 1954, New York City

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Marilyn Monroe, Ballerina Sitting, 1954, New York City, by Milton H. Greene. ((Milton H. Greene/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

Everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Paris Hilton seems to have an opinion on Marilyn Monroe. Macho American novelist Norman Mailer saw her as the ripe, receptive embodiment of the feminine ideal, while feminist writer Gloria Steinem viewed her as a victim, martyred by 1950s patriarchy.

To most commentators, Monroe is a bundle of paradoxes. She’s sexual but innocent, that lush, womanly body vying with that little-girl voice. She’s vulnerable — think of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind — but also driven and calculating in her pursuit of star status. Photographer Milton H. Greene, a glamour photographer who worked for Life, Look and Vogue and later became Monroe’s business partner, catches some of these contradictions in the so-called "Ballerina Sittings." The white tutu Greene picked for this 1954 shoot was too big; Monroe clutches it to her chest, a gesture that seems chaste and yet invites erotic imaginings.

After Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967/1978

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After Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967/1978, by Andy Warhol. ((Winnipeg Art Gallery))

Some like it hot when it comes to Marilyn, but Andy Warhol preferred it cool. His dispassionate gaze took a photographic studio portrait by Frank Powolny and flattened it into endlessly repeated silkscreen prints. Warhol replicated the half-closed eyes, the parted lips and famous beauty mark, but showed no interest in Monroe’s sexuality. Instead, the commodity- and celebrity-obsessed Pop artist was turned on by her aura of fame and money.

According to Shawna Dempsey, a Winnipeg-based artist and curator who will be participating in a panel discussion of the WAG show, "Monroe represents consumerism, or perhaps our rampant consumer nature as a culture. We used her up for our own ends."

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The iconic image of Monroe standing over a subway grate is recognizable in many guises. ((Ernest Mayer/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

Some of Marilyn’s photos are traffic stoppers, literally. Almost 15,000 people clogged the New York intersection of 52nd and Lexington in September 1954 to watch the filming of The Seven Year Itch, a movie in which Monroe is billed only as "The Girl." Monroe stood over a subway grate while a wind machine tugged her white skirt upwards.

The notoriously malicious gossip columnist Walter Winchell dragged Monroe’s husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, to witness this risqué scene. (Reportedly Monroe’s two pairs of white nylon panties did not hide everything.) DiMaggio was furious, and the troubled marriage ended in separation two weeks later.

The actual film scene was later reshot in a studio, but Sam Shaw’s subway-grate photos took on their own life. The image is recognizable even when transformed into simplified swirls of colour, as several paintings and sculptures in the exhibition prove.

DD and MM, 2003

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DD and MM, 2003, by Wolfgang Loesche. ((Wolfgang Loesche/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

The Life as Legend exhibition originated in Hamburg, Germany. Many of the contemporary European artists seem fascinated by America’s cult of celebrity, pairing Marilyn with pop culture symbols like Mao, Madonna and Donald Duck.

These pieces emphasize the malleability of Monroe’s image. As the idea of Marilyn travels through decades and cultures, it becomes whatever people need it to be. Madonna’s version of Marilyn, for example, referenced in a painting by Martin C. Herbst, was quintessentially ’80s, all hard-bodied discipline and steel will.

Detail from Actress Marilyn Monroe posing for husband Arthur Miller, 1960/2003

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Detail from Actress Marilyn Monroe posing for husband Arthur Miller, 1960/2003, by John Bryson. ((John Bryson/TimePix))

In 1960, John Bryson snapped Monroe hamming it up for her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. (Predictably, the catchphrase-loving media dubbed the pair "the Egghead and the Hourglass.") This impromptu image, which catches its subject with one eye half closed, demonstrates what many of the still photos can’t — that Monroe was a gifted, self-aware comedienne, able to play the ditzy blonde and send her up at the same time.

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Monroe calendar shots are flanked by paintings at the exhibit. ((Ernest Mayer/Winnipeg Art Gallery) )

In 1952, nude photos taken of Monroe in 1949 turned up in a calendar. Though tame by today’s internet porn standards, the photos were hotsy-totsy enough to be banned in Pennsylvania.

Monroe had been paid $50 for the shoot; the calendar company sold the negatives for $500. Hugh Hefner showcased the photos in the inaugural issue of Playboy and became a multimillionaire. It’s a succinct illustration of the entertainment industry’s exploitation of young female flesh, but Monroe managed to turn the story around. When reporters discovered the connection between the young Twentieth Century-Fox starlet and the pictures, Monroe faced the scandal straight on, admitting frankly that she had posed nude because she needed rent money. This disarming "a girl’s gotta eat" defence was a shrewd PR move, and her career bloomed.

One Night with Marilyn (3), 1961/2003

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One Night with Marilyn (3), 1961/2003, by Douglas Kirkland. Inkjet print. ((Douglas Kirkland/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

The camera couldn’t get enough of Monroe — she was possibly the most photographed individual of the 20th century. But her need for the camera was just as insatiable. According to Ernest Mayer, senior photographer at the WAG, "she must have had an instinctive knowledge of how to pose, how to get the best view. And she must have been willing to try many things — that always acts as a catalyst."

In this famous 1961 series, she works the camera — and the photographer, a young Canadian named Douglas Kirkland. On his first major assignment, the Fort Erie, Ont.-raised kid found himself alone in a room with a naked Monroe and an unmade bed, and he shot her wearing nothing but a cream silk sheet.

In the photos, she seems pliant and submissive, languid with sexual longing. After the shoot, she was anything but: the next day, Monroe ordered Kirkland to get a grease pencil and scissors and went through the shots, image by image.

Marilyn Monroe Collage, 1971/2001 

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Marilyn Monroe Collage, 1971/2001, by Peter Beard. Mixed media on silver gelatin. ((Peter Beard/Arne Zimmerman/ Winnipeg Art Gallery) )

For many postmodernist theorists, Monroe expresses the constructed nature of identity, particularly gender identity. Her life can be seen as a series of virtuoso performances, supported by hair, makeup, dresses so tight she was sometimes sewn into them — all the gorgeous props that have enthralled generations of drag queens.

According to Angela Failler, professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg, "representations of Marilyn Monroe from the ’50s and ’60s emphasized the naturalness of her femininity, insisting that her essence was femininity.

"There was virtually no acknowledgement that Monroe’s femininity was work. But I think she did work it."

Here's to you, from the series The Last Sitting, 1962/1978

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Here's to you, from the series The Last Sitting, 1962/1978, by Bert Stern. C-Print. ((Bert Stern/Winnipeg Art Gallery))

Bert Stern’s series The Last Sitting took place at the Hotel Bel-Air six weeks before Monroe’s death. Shot over three days, the marathon session yielded more than 2,600 images. Divorced from Miller and recently fired from the set of the aptly named film Something’s Got to Give, Monroe is physically revealing — there are nude studies in which she’s barely covered by a chiffon scarf — but seems emotionally exhausted. A glass of champagne looks effervescent in this image, but other shots hint at Monroe’s much darker relationship with booze and pills.

Marilyn Monroe (2), 1962/2005

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Marilyn Monroe (2), 1962/2005, by Willy Rizzo. C-Print. ((Willy Rizzo/Winnipeg Art Gallery) )

Willy Rizzo, on assignment for Paris Match, shot Monroe at a house in Beverly Hills in July 1962. Monroe tries gamely to play to the camera, but several shots show her looking weary or confused. Her makeup is a little squiggly — she’d done it herself — and her fabled platinum hair is paying the price of years of peroxide.

Two weeks later, she was dead of a barbiturate overdose. "If she’d grown old like Elizabeth Taylor, would she have been so celebrated?" Delacretaz muses. "Nobody’s organizing an exhibit of Liz Taylor images."

The decade of the ’60s, with its twig-thin models and free-flowing fashion, would have been an inhospitable time for Monroe's postwar curves and elaborate femininity. And the culture that defined her by her radiant girlishness would have punished her cruelly as she aged. Paradoxically, it’s the ephemeral nature of Monroe’s beauty that has allowed it to endure.

Marilyn: Life as Legend runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until June 7.

Alison Gillmor is a writer based in Winnipeg.