Thursday, 8 November 2012

Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair

Marilyn photographed by Sam Shaw, 1957

    I have been trying to schedule in a visit to the Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair exhibition for ages, and hope to finally go next week. Held at The National Portrait Gallery, just behind Oxford Street, the exhibition dedicates a vast room of photographs to the world-famous pin-up and actress. With photographs and magazine covers dating from 1946 up to her death in 1962, any admirer of the beautiful and talented Marilyn (born Norma Jeane) will get an intimate glimpse at her life in and out of the limelight.
  There is no doubt that Marilyn was a photographer's dream, and celebrated in the exhibition are Marilyn's collaborations with famed British photographers such as Anthony Beauchamp and Larry Burrows. From press coverage documenting Marilyn's trips to the UK to private shots taken in her spare-time, the exhibition is a visual diary of the icon's life.
   A special highlight of the exhibition for Brits is the impressive selection of press photographs, posters, lobby cards, vintage photographs and film stills from Marilyn's four month visit to the UK in 1956. Photographs from this trip, on which she she filmed ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ with Laurence Olivier, show Marilyn at the very peak of her career. In a photograph that certainly brings a smile to my face, Burrows captured Marilyn excitedly greeting a crowd of fans from a hotel window. Life magazine photographer Burrows was there throughout Marilyn's London vacation, documenting her every moment on British soil- from her first meeting with the Queen to the press conference for The Prince and The Showgirl at The Savoy.
   The relaxed yet still glamorous photographs of Marilyn in a well-known yellow bikini (Beauchamp, 1951) and lounging in a hotel suite (Cecil Beaton's 1956 photographs of Marilyn in the Ambassador hotel, New York) make a nice contrast to the photographs of more formal, business-based events. To see Marilyn in happy times is very poignant, considering how her life became infamously unhappy in the run-up to her death. Though she was considered a sex-symbol and the epitome of glamorour, I feel one of the most intriguing aspects of Marilyn was her vulnerability. On one dreamy image taken by Jack Cardiff, Marilyn tragically wrote; “Dear Jack, if only I could be the way you created me”. In one photograph taken during a dress fitting for a Madison Square Garden event we see Marilyn in tears at a wardrobe malfunction. I love how this shows  that Marilyn Monroe, despite her fame, was just like any other image-conscious woman.
 

Marilyn described Beaton's photograph of herself in his Ambassador
Hotel suite in '56 as her favourite picture of herself.


Marilyn and her yellow bikini, shot on Santa Monica beach, 1951 by Anthony Beauchamp

 
Marilyn in London (1956) to film The Prince and the Showgirl, by Larry Burrows
A lovely touch to the exhibition are the quotes accompanying the photographic displays. Being able to read quotes from photographers and others that knew Marilyn first-hand not only gives an insight into her character, but is a touching tribute to the star's memory. Dame Edith Sitwell- who Marilyn is seen talking with on a sofa in one photograph- said, “She was very quiet and had a natural dignity… She was also exceedingly sensitive”. It gives me shivers reading this, and I know I will feel greatly moved when I get to see and read these commemorations to Marilyn in real life.
  Because the exhibit focuses on Marilyn's relationship with Britain, she is pictured with a number of note-worthy British subjects, such as British director Roy Ward Baker and Gone With The Wind's Vivien Leigh as well as poet Edith Sitwell. Numerous British magazine covers from the likes of Sight & Sound and Picture Post depict Marilyn's emergence from shy foster-child to blonde screen legend and curvaceous role-model for women. The final cover of the publication display was released posthumously.


Marilyn on Sight & Sound's January-March cover of 1954.
A shot from How To Marry A Millionaire with Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall.
 
  The final must-see aspect of the exhibition are the costumes worn by Marilyn in her film history. Each beautiful dress is displayed on a mannequin cut to Marilyn's real measurements. I cannot wait to see Marilyn's wardrobe in the flesh, from her sequinned scarlet dress from 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes' to the ivory satin, couture evening gown designed by Lanvin and Castillo as a personal gift to the Hollywood siren. As well as fulfilling that dream of being as close as possible to one of my icons, to me it will also be a really fascinating look at the fashion of Marilyn's time.
  I have been transfixed by Marilyn for a number of years now and am so glad that she is still being recognised and honoured as a natural born star that gave her all to the public. In every photograph I have come across of Marilyn, even in the most candid of shots, she exudes this enchanting, effortless charm that makes you wish you could have had the privelege of meeting her in person.
  If you too love Marilyn, I would urge you to buy and read the book "Fragments", by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment. Reading it, I felt genuinely overwhelmed by Marilyn's-I would say almost secret-humanity. The book is a collection of authentic diary style extracts- made up of letters, notes and poems written by Marilyn herself in her captivating scrawl. Each piece of her thoughts show her as a playful, curious, funny yet troubled young woman. There are also 'unseen' photographs of Marilyn throughout the works. Just seeing Marilyn constantly with her head in a book made me emphasise with her. The book finishes with the funeral eulogy read after Marilyn's death. It really is an amazing read, so buy it and let me know what you think.


A photograph from 'Fragments': Marilyn reading James Joyce

3 comments:

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