Marilyn Monroe * Life as a Legend

The Saginaw Art Museum Stages a Rare & Vivid Exhibition of an Iconic Artist Lost & Found in the Mists of The American Dream

    icon Sep 24, 2008
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She was not the usual movie idol. There was something democratic about her. She was the type who would join in and wash up the supper dishes even if you didn't ask her.


- Carl Sandburg

Marilyn Monroe - few names trigger such a rush of imagery in the American Psyche.  More than an actress that starred in 30-plus films in her 15-year career, she was in reality the last of the Hollywood film legends - a woman that doesn't translate well to the small confines of a television screen, simply because her emotions, as with her beauty, expand the more you see, hear, absorb and learn from her.

Director Billy Wilder used to say working with Marilyn was "worth a week's torment to get 3 luminous minutes on the screen" And from her first film, Scudda Hoo! Sudda Hay in 1948 to her last, The Misfits in 1961, Marilyn went from studio-issue blonde bimbo to Method-trained heartbreaking actress radiating depth & soul.  That she could move beyond the camp of her legend was her true genius, and how she differed from Jayne Mansfield, and other studio creations designed to 'replace' her.

But Marilyn was irreplaceable.

The woman that gave Hugh Hefner his start as the first centerfold in the debut issue of Playboy and hence legitimized  'prurient' publishing in America  (ironically - or perhaps diabolically, Hefner owns the crypt next to Marilyn's so he can be laid to rest next to her for eternity) also formed her most profound relationships with All-American baseball hero Joe DiMaggio and celebrated intellectual playwright Arthur Miller, attesting to both the extreme contradictions between body & mind, simple & profound, that Marilyn struggled throughout her life to keep in balance, maintain her equilibrium, and ultimately absorb to color the depth of her humanity.

It is into this mix that The Saginaw Art Museum prepares to launch Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe - an exceptionally vivid & divergent exhibition capturing Marilyn's rise to stardom through works by more than 100 artists. 

Beginning with a Red Carpet Premier on October 8th and opening to the general public on October 9th, this exclusive engagement will showcase the spark, sex appeal and sensation that Monroe conjured through the eyes of such artists as Andy Warhol, Allen Jones, Peter Blake, Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and many others.  Moreover, throughout its 30-day run at the Museum through November 9th, a series of unique partnerships have been formed with Pit & Balcony community theatre and The Temple Theatre to show classic Monroe films and stage unique theatrical works, attesting to the notion that the creativity this woman inspired is not only alive and flourishing, but highly contagious.

For me, Marilyn was anything but 'simple', which is why her works - even the lighter ones that cultivated her image as a 'dumb blonde' were anything but a basic line drawn by a pencil.  In drama, art, and especially the theatre,  'simplicity' alienates one from life, for in life, moral situations are rarely novel but invariably overloaded with counterpoint, so that the people who surround you are not always comfortable to the concepts of the mind and the compassion that comes out of conflict.

The fact that so many celebrated artists  & photographers saw fit to engage with Monroe artistically further attests to the powerful strength of both this exhibition and it's storied icon.

The genesis of the Life As Legend exhibition began several years ago when the Saginaw Art Museum became aware of its availability through a traveling exhibition service in Washington, D.C. According to Executive Director Les Reker, a contract was negotiated to bring the exhibition here to Saginaw, with the Saginaw Art Museum to be the exclusive venue to all of Michigan, Indiana, and Northern Ohio.

The playwright Arthur Miller once said that "Marilyn always sees things as though for the first time."  From an artistic perspective, Les Reker shares these sentiments.  When asked what qualities Marilyn Monroe possessed to engage & inspire so many artists & photographers to attempt to render her as a subject, the notion of her many divergent qualities surfaces.

"The images produced by the artists represented in this exhibition capture the determination, innocence, and vulnerability of Norma Jean Baker, as well as the vibrant personality, femininity and sensuality that became Marilyn Monroe, "he reflects.

" I think the longevity of her popularity and the influence she has over so many artists comes, in part, from both the lessons & myths of her life and death as well as from the symbolic power her visual image has come to represent. Whether one lived during Marilyn's lifetime or developed a fascination with her following her death, the works on display in this exhibition offer the visitor an insight into the life of a woman who became one of the most celebrated cultural icons in history. "

"Indeed, the intense, world-wide interest in the enigmatic life of Marilyn Monroe is as enduring as the visual images she inspired," continues Reker. "People from all walks of life have craved to see, to know, and to understand more about this truly alluring woman than nearly any other female in history. The fascination extends from her early years as Norma Jean Baker, the hard-working plant employee, to Marilyn Monroe, the sophisticated movie star."

 "Her celebrity marriages, rumored liaisons, and risqué behavior have only heightened her popularity," reflects Les. "The incredible mystique that surrounded her shocking death is one that she shares with other young celebrities of the 1960s. This air of mystery has magnified her legendry status. As a result, the brand "Marilyn Monroe" has evolved into one of the most recognizable cultural entities in human history. Her enduring legacy has itself become the stuff of legend: she is a transcendent icon, inspiring many artists over the last 46 years."

 Of the more than 100 artists chronicling the expanse of Marilyn's career, which of the artists featured in this exhibit does Les feel truly capture her the best?

"Andy Warhol is the most celebrated artist to capture the image of Marilyn Monroe as "cultural icon". He appropriated images from popular culture to create paintings of Marilyn that remain significant Pop Art symbols of the 20th century, like his Campbell's Soup Cans."

"Another is the photographer Eve Arnold, who captured Marilyn in six photo sessions, beginning in 1952. She developed a friendship that lasted until her death. Because Marilyn allowed this artist to come into her life in such an intimate way, the images have been given a special, insightful power. I would also say that the group of photos from The Last Sitting, by Bert Stern, captures the persona of Marilyn at the pinnacle of her career. She appears alluring, teasing, mysterious, and innocent."

The exhibition will be divided into different periods of Marilyn's life.

It begins with images from her earliest days, when she was known as Norma Jean Baker, the hard working employee at the Radio Plane munitions plant during the WWII.  It then evolves, chronologically, to include examples from her first photographic session, which took place after being discovered in the 1940s.  According to Les, "These photographs by Bruno Bernard (known as Bernard of Hollywood) documented a period of Americana when purity and innocence masked the prurient."

 "We then move on to images from her earliest portrayal of the fully realized "Marilyn" character. After that are images with her husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, followed by images that depict her on the set of several films with other popular figures of the time. The photographic representations end with images of "Marilyn" as a mature actress and popular icon. The final section of the exhibition is a presentation of paintings and other artworks that were created posthumously. They reveal the character of Marilyn as an enduring cultural phenomenon."

In order to celebrate and expose the public to the multi-faceted dimensions and components of Marilyn's career, The Saginaw Art Museum is also teaming up with Pit & Balcony theatre for two special events in a novel interactive approach to showcase this iconic personality.

The first takes place from October 23-25th with a one-woman performance by Marilyn impersonator & actress Sonny Thompson, coming from Seattle with her company Lipstick Productions to perform 'Marilyn Forever Blonde', which has also been performed in New Zealand to rave reviews.

Pit & Balcony is also performing Some Like It Hot October 10th- 19th. This is a community performance of a play based on the famous movie with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  Plus, The Temple Theatre will be showing two of Marilyn's films during the exhibition: Gentlemen Prefer Blonds on October 26th and How to Marry a Millionaire on November 2nd.

"This is new for any of the cultural organizations in the region," notes Les. "While we have worked on projects with the Children's Zoo, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Saginaw Choral Society, this is the first time where the content of our cultural offerings: in the exhibition, plays and films, have been so carefully coordinated. I am thrilled with these partnerships and look forward to future opportunities to work with them again. It is good for all of us and it is good for our community to have us work together."

What is the most challenging component about bringing an exhibition like this together?

"Well, it is quite expensive for a community our size," admits Les. " The shipping alone is $10,000.  In addition, this is a very large exhibition, featuring 300 works of art arriving in over 30 crates. The curatorial decisions about exhibit presentation have been completed. Though it will be challenging to perform unpacking, preparation and hanging with a small staff, I am confident in the professional abilities of my Assistant Curator, Ryan Kaltenbach.

In terms of summing up her cultural impact on America, opinions are as varied as the attributes & qualities embedded within Marilyn's personality.  How would Les sum it up?

"Marilyn Monroe came to resent playing the stereotypical blonde that the studio bosses forced upon her," he concludes. "Her commitment to achieving success as a serious actor led her to the Actor's Studio in New York to study with Lee Strasburg.  The exhibition features photographs by Peter Basch at the Actor's Studio that document her break from Hollywood, a break that, upon her triumphant return to Hollywood, would gain her rare independence from the big studios and more control over her films. These images also mark her transition into the mature years of her acting career on the silver screen and in the exhibition."

"For me, the most lasting image of Marilyn in this exhibition, taken just six weeks before her death by Bert Stern, is a photograph of her holding a champagne glass in hand."

"It reveals the soft, humorous, and exuberant style of femininity and sex appeal that generations of admirers remember most. This and other posthumous images reveal how Hollywood's artificial creation of the character of Marilyn was, perhaps, a contributing factor to the real person's enigmatic life and tragic end."

Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe runs at the Saginaw Art Museum from October 8th to November 9th. Thursday evenings will feature themed events. The Saginaw Art Museum is located at 1126 N. Michigan Avenue. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday, 10 AM - 6 PM; Thursday 10 AM to 8 PM; and Sunday Noon to 5 PM.  For more information phone 989-754-2491.

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