Monroe was not just another star, nor was she simply a beautiful woman; she was an individual who emerged from her working class roots and captured the attention of the world through the pervasive presence of her photographed, or filmed, image. For the contemporaneous viewing public, memories of Monroe are of her posing, whether it was in publicity shots, television interviews (in which she presented her own carefully-crafted persona), or her body of work. For those of us born after Monroe’s death, yet no less familiar with her image and myth through the cult surrounding her (propelled, no doubt in part, by the ubiquity of Warhol’s Marilyn images), the connection is even more fragile—our memories of her only include photographs and films. It seems, therefore, reasonable that Warhol would use a photograph as his source material.
Warhol and Monroe shared many similar qualities; both came from humble beginnings, were desperate for fame and success, and longed to be taken seriously by the established artists of their times. Marilyn studied with Strasberg, whose technique and students had ties to the Abstract Expressionists, both of whom emphasized “authenticity in expression…the result of an unplanned process of inner discovery, a peeling away of learned responses to allow an unmediated confrontation between the medium (script or paint) and self.”(2)
Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh in 1928 into a poor immigrant family. After showing promise as an artist, he entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and majored in pictorial design. In the 1950s, he enjoyed a successful career as a commercial artist in New York, and began to show his artwork in galleries, as well as in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956.
Although a successful commercial artist, Warhol had a great reverence for the established garde. In 1954, Willem De Kooning had painted Monroe’s lips as part of his Woman series. In 1963, after Warhol had begun using his image of Monroe in his paintings, he noted that “De Kooning gave me content and motivation. My work evolves from that.”(3) By featuring Monroe in his art, Warhol simultaneously aligned himself with the artists he admired, and provided an image that a hungrily mourning public was eager to devour—and continues to be.
The image of Monroe that Warhol used in his silkscreen paintings has a strangeness to it. He is said to have used unaltered images in his artwork, but what appears to be a straightforward publicity shot Crow argues, convincingly, is a composite of several images.(4) In his analysis, the hair and earrings were taken from an “upwardly tilted, right-facing” photo of Monroe, and the face was taken from a photo in which her face was “angled to the left and lowered slightly.” I believe Crow is correct and any discussion of the Marilyn images assumes the composite theory.
Warhol acknowledges—and, it could be argued, simultaneously celebrates and criticizes—the mass media in his image of Monroe, by highlighting the ways in which photographs are reproduced in its pages.(5) The contrasts between black and white, grainy textures, and bright, rather unrealistic colors, which often fall short of their borders, recall and reinforce the power of the mass media at the time. As well, the garish ways in which color is applied to the image—the hair becomes a golden halo, the eyes are painted an unnatural turquoise, the lips are a deep red, and the skin is the pink of a painful sunburn—recalls the way corpses are presented for a final viewing: an approximation of what she looked like, resembling the memory we have of her, but unavoidably bereft of life.
Although the images retain strong ties to the mass media tradition, Warhol’s Marilyn paintings function in an entirely different way than the popular press. Whiting argues that the images are at odds with “the popular mythology according to which a star’s ‘true’ identity lies trapped within the public image.”(6) She states that a public image in the popular press requires the existence of a private life to legitimize the reality of the public image. The popular press of the time, aided by the introduction of high-quality telephoto lenses after World War II, was determined to uncover the “real” lives of celebrities, and followed Monroe, capturing and publishing stolen moments that exposed “her fickle nature, her insecurities, her marriages, and her mental breakdown in 1961.”(7) Attempting to maintain control of the public’s perception of her, Monroe refused to allow Life magazine to photograph her home, so that she could retain a sense of mystery, and remain the fantasy of Everyman.(8)
In her death, the press cast Monroe in the role of Tragic Victim, driven to suicide by the pressures of maintaining the image she created. Newsweek even suggested that the very fact that she “withstood the incredible, unknowable pressures of her public legend as long as she did is evidence of the stamina of the human spirit…one can only wish…that pressure might have been lifted long enough to let her find the key to the self behind the public image.”(9)
It has been widely reported that, although he was a homosexual who kept company with those who would be considered “sinners” according to the Church, Warhol remained faithful to his religious upbringing.(10) In Gold Marilyn Monroe, Warhol painted a metallic gold background on the canvas with a lone impression of the composite image in the center. In his Byzantine Catholic tradition (as well as others), gold leaf was often used in icon paintings. For them, the icon painting is
a graphic…manifestation of salvation in Christ. Unlike other religious art…icons make present these events and persons for us. We therefore show icons the same respect we would for the event or person represented in them, because these are, in reality, present before us in the form of the icon. When we venerate icons, our veneration is therefore directed at the event or person depicted, and not at the picture itself or the wood on which the icon is painted. Icons are venerated, but are never worshipped, for worship belongs to God alone. In fact, in venerating the persons depicted by icons, we are in fact rendering glory and praise to God, who by His great mercy and love has transfigured these persons and made them holy.(11)
It is hard to ignore the fact that, although the popular images of Monroe that were published in the years leading up to her suicide were invasive of her privacy, the one which Warhol chose to reproduce as his homage to her—and, arguably, his most famous work—was a composite of images that Monroe herself had approved. It is possible, then, to accept the memorial function of Warhol’s Marilyn paintings, especially in the context of Byzantine Catholicism. She was hounded (read: crucified) by the press that then eulogized her in almost saintly terms. By reproducing his image of Monroe repeatedly, in singular and multiple formats, and in various color combinations, Warhol attempts to grant Monroe the dignity that was stolen from her by the press in the years leading up to her death.
In contrast to the Gold Marilyn Monroe, the Marilyn Diptych, also of 1962, reproduces the same composite image 50 times in a grid on two canvasses. On the left, the image is in color. Monroe’s features are in the same palette as in Gold Marilyn Monroe, but the background is a mustard-gold, what the background in the Gold painting might look like if reproduced in color on newsprint. The images are fairly consistent in their resolution, although they show a slight darkening as they progress from left to right, and the shadow begins to overtake Monroe’s left side.
The canvas on the right is in black and white, and Monroe’s image is clearly viewed in the first column of the grid. Moving right, the next column is almost completely saturated with paint, almost obliterating the image. In the next column, her image reappears, lighter, and almost completely fades by the time the eye reaches the final column of the grid. The work reads as a timeline, or an Egyptian hieroglyphic painting from a tomb, telling part of the story of her life. On the left side of the diptych is Monroe’s public persona: consistent and controlled; how the public remembers her, through the distorted lens of memory. On the right side, the invasion of the press into her private life, complete with divorces, alcoholism, and metal breakdowns, dirtying her image. The saturated column represents her death. The return of her image recalls the press coverage of her death, portraying her as a victim and saint; the fading images call to mind the public wanting more—a return to the lively, colorful Marilyn on the left, which we can no longer have.
1 Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” Art in America 75 (May 1987), p 132.
2 Crow, p. 132.
3 Crow, p. 132. Originally from an interview with G.R. Swenson, in J. Russell and S. Gablik, eds., Pop Art Redefined, New York, 1969, p. 118.
4 Crow, p. 133.
5 Andy Warhol, the Public Star and the Private Self. Cècile Whiting, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, The 60s (1987), p. 58.
6 Whiting, p. 58.
7 Whiting, p. 60.
8 Whiting, p. 62.
9 “I Love You…I Love You.” Newsweek. 60 (August 20, 1962), pp 30-1.
10 The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, by Jane Daggett Dillenberger—A Review. Eleanor Heartney. Art in America. June, 1999.
11 “Who Are Byzantine Catholics? The Byzantine Catholic Church in America.” www.byzcath.org