Bury St Edmunds Marilyn Monroe exhibition reveals photographic magic
Marilyn Monroe remains a timeless icon. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at a groundbreaking exhibition which opens this weekend in Bury St Edmunds which brings together some of the greatest images from her career.
Marilyn Monroe remains one of Hollywood’s timeless icons. More than 50 years after her death, she is still one of the most vibrant figures in popular culture. Her films are still restored and re-released in cinemas – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot have all had big screen revivals in the last ten years – but equally importantly in terms of her legend, her image continues to adorn books, posters, bags and all manner of clothing.
Part of her enduring appeal can be put down to the fact that she is adored by women (particularly young women) as much as she is by men. This is down to the fact that she was a strong woman, who refused to bow to the studio system, went to work on her terms, and was always looking to improve herself – whether that was falling in love with acknowledged intellectual and playwright Arthur Miller or taking time out from her career, at the height of her fame, to disappear for a year to learn stagecraft at The Actors’ Studio with Brando’s tutor Lee Strasberg.
It was an audacious move but showed that she was serious about her career and was clear about what she wanted to achieve. She wanted to be more than the dumb blonde and showed evidence of this in Bus Stop and in her final film The Misfits, opposite her childhood hero Clark Gable.
It’s this mixture of Hollywood glamour and steely determination that keeps her ‘current’ in what is usually a fast-changing world of movie-star favourites.
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She loved the camera and she recognised its value and the support it gave her, even at her lowest moments. Even when she had been fired from her unfinished film Something’s Got To Give, opposite Dean Martin, she commissioned at least two photo-sessions to not only keep her name before her loyal public, but to let them know she was evolving and moving on.
It’s her love affair with the camera which is being celebrated by a new exhibition at Bury St Edmunds’ historic Moyse’s Hall from this weekend.
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Called ‘Timeless’, this unique exhibition pulls together a stunning collection of rare vintage photographs and limited-edition prints which have been curated by Kudos Memorabilia and were captured through the lenses of some of the 20th Century’s greatest photographic artists.
This new exhibition will be a rare opportunity to explore stunning portraits from Monroe’s early years as an aspiring actress and model through to her dazzling rise to international stardom. Alongside works from photographic luminaries like Alfred Eisenstaedt, Philippe Halsman, Cecil Beaton, Bert Stern, André de Dienes, George Barris and Milton Greene, the collection will also feature one of Marilyn’s treasured personal possessions, which was displayed in the living room right up until her untimely death on August 5th, 1962.
As the legendary photographer, Elliott Erwitt, once said: “Marilyn Monroe had the most extraordinary ability of always looking good for the camera... It’s really very difficult to take a bad picture of her!”
Brian White, from Kudos, said that it was Marilyn’s complexity as an individual which inspired them to pull together images from throughout her career.
“Her ethereal beauty, clarity of expression and emotional transparency all combine to portray a woman, who was simultaneously radiant, vulnerable, provocative, transcendent and yet somehow tangibly real. For us, Marilyn represents the pinnacle of female celebrity portraiture.
“We have stunning images from her very earliest days as a model, behind-the-scenes captures from her film-work, breathtaking location and studio work and emotive candid images that showcase her true personality in a unique and engaging way. Exclusive and privately curated collections like ours are routinely hidden away from the public, and so we regard this as a rare and valuable opportunity to view such a diverse, historic and brand-agnostic collection of Marilyn Monroe images.”
Situated in the beautiful Moyse’s Hall, this will be the first time many of these images will have been seen together in their original form. Highlights include original vintage photographs, images that were once part of famous curated collections and historic limited edition prints produced and signed by the original photographic artists. This is a rare chance to witness such an extensive collection in the UK.”
The exhibition, which will be open Monday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 12pm – 4pm with admission only £5 for adults and £3 for children, runs until September 30.
Interview with Brian White, of exhibition curators Kudos.
What first inspired you to start the collection? What was the first piece?
At Kudos, we are drawn to iconic celebrities or franchises – like Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee or James Bond - that ignite our imaginations and transcend the silver screen. We are passionate about photography and believe Marilyn’s breathtaking collaborations with many of the 20th Century’s most celebrated photographers delivered some of the most quintessential and timeless images ever captured on film. Her ethereal beauty, clarity of expression and emotional transparency all combine to portray a woman, who was simultaneously radiant, vulnerable, provocative, transcendent and yet somehow tangibly real. We expend a great deal of time, effort and money curating our collection, and so it’s natural to collect only the best items on offer in any one particular genre. For us, Marilyn represents the pinnacle of female celebrity portraiture.
Our first Marilyn-themed acquisition was actually a playful black and white portrait of a young Norma–Jeane (Marilyn’s real name) playing on some driftwood on Tobay Beach, Long Island, New York. It was shot by André de Dienes, in 1949, right at the start of Marilyn’s career as a model and before she had achieved any level of stardom in movies. We were drawn to her untamed spirit and infectious energy. It’s a truly joyful capture and is also part of our exhibition. At the same time, we also purchased a lot of original negatives and accompanying rights for a selection of images taken by Joseph Jasgur. They also feature a young Marilyn on the beach in a vintage bathing suit, and we will be making beautiful limited edition prints of this set available to exhibition goers, for the first time, at a special concessionary price.
Tell us about why you are excited to bring this unique collection to Moyse’s Hall?
We have worked with the team at Moyse’s Hall on a number of previous occasions, providing content for various memorabilia and sci-fi exhibitions and curating an exhibition of Bruce Lee Memorabilia last year at The Apex. In each of our commercial endeavours, we look for teams of people, who are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject and who are personally invested in bringing the best possible experience to the public. Over the last few years, we have developed an excellent working relationship with the teams at Moyse’s Hall, The Apex and St Edmundsbury Council and have received wonderful feedback from the local people, who have viewed our exhibits. Marilyn Monroe is a unique and iconic celebrity, who invariably draws an extremely passionate response, whenever her photographic collaborations are shown. We are, therefore, delighted to share this collection with a community, which has shown us so much appreciation and support in recent years.
Do you have favourite pieces? Why?
We love all pieces in our collection. Each one has been hand-picked for a specific reason and details a precious moment in the remarkable life of Marilyn Monroe. One of our personal favourites, however, is a bewitching black and white portrait of Marilyn, from 1953, by famed portrait photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995). Marilyn, age 26, is posing informally in a simple black pullover and white slacks. Her nuanced expression is exquisite, and her warm, yet casual, intimacy, combined with an almost palpable vulnerability, memorialises an authentic Marilyn that many studio photographers failed to capture. This image was originally shot by ‘Eisie” as a potential cover image for Life Magazine. At the time, editors considered it to be too understated to make the grade, but, every year since 1953, this image has grown in prestige amongst collectors of classic Marilyn Monroe photography. This beautiful silver gelatine print also features Eisenstaedt’s personal signature.
We are also very proud to exhibit a rare and prestigious signed vintage photograph of Marilyn by ace photographer, Elliott Erwitt. It is a beautiful black and white silver gelatine photograph signed in the lower right by Erwitt and then also signed and dated, verso, as follows: ‘Eliott Erwitt, New York City/1956’. Erwitt was a legend in photographic circles. He served as president of the prestigious photographic agency, Magnum, and his work has been exhibited in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and The Museum of Modern Art in Paris, to name but a few...
What are you most excited to have on display and why?
In addition to the items detailed above, we are also very excited to bring to the exhibition an item that Marilyn personally owned and displayed in her home on Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood, Los Angeles, right up until the night of her tragic death on August 5th, 1962. Marilyn had a genuine personal connection to this particular item and found it to be an inspiration. We believe this will be the first time it has ever been publicly displayed in the UK and are certain Marilyn fans will be intrigued and delighted by this highly sought after item.
Do you have any unusual stories about how the different collection items came about?
We had our eye on a very iconic Marilyn photograph from The Seven Year Itch’, which was being auctioned at Christie’s a few years back. As part of our due diligence, we decided to visit the pre-auction exhibition to view the article firsthand, prior to bidding. As we drew close to the display area, we noticed a very well-known UK TV personality with exceptionally deep pockets hovering around the photograph! We couldn’t help wondering if an impromptu fire-drill might be in order to distract his attention. Knowing someone of his calibre has his eye on a piece you are targeting certainly adds to the thrill of the chase! We did prevail, however, and this wonderfully iconic portrait will be on display as part of the ‘Timeless’ exhibition at Moyse’s Hall.
Tell us about what makes this collection so unique, are some images being seen for the first time?
We are very confident that the vast majority of visitors to the exhibition will be viewing our images, for the first time, in their practical forms. Of course, in this Internet-driven age, many low-grade images of Marilyn can be found online. What makes our exhibits special, however, is that they all have a pedigree and a lineage. Some are original vintage photographs, shot and processed when Marilyn was alive; others were once part of famous curated collections and yet others are historic limited editions produced and signed by the original photographic artists - most of whom are sadly no longer with us today. Marilyn fans love to view articles that played a tangible part in her personal story. It is the photographic lineage and history that they come to experience and enjoy.
What do you think it was about MM that made her portraits so iconic?
We believe Marilyn is one of the most compelling photographic subjects of all time. Aside from her famous physical attributes, she infused a unique blend of sexually-charged innocence and epic vitality into her work that captures the heart and energises the emotions. Very few, if any, photographic subjects are able to deliver such an impact, even by today’s exacting standards. Marilyn struggled to find her confidence as an actress, often arriving late on set after a prolonged struggle with confidence-eroding emotions. When she appeared as a model for a stills photographer, on the other hand, she was the epitome of confidence, professionalism and artistic intelligence. She had an in-depth knowledge of posing, lighting and emotional projection that made her a joy to work with. Photographic legend, Elliott Erwitt, once quipped: “Marilyn Monroe had the most extraordinary ability of always looking good for the camera... It’s really very difficult to take a bad picture of her!”
Has a collection like this ever been seen before in the UK?
Generally, Marilyn Monroe photographic exhibitions showcase a particular photographer, photographic society or magazine and therefore, by definition, cover a narrow subject range. Our collection is privately owned and hand-curated. It highlights a number of the defining moments from Marilyn’s incredible career. We have stunning images from her very earliest days as a model, behind-the-scenes captures from her film-work, breathtaking location and studio work and emotive candid images that showcase her true personality in a unique and engaging way. Exclusive and privately curated collections like ours are routinely hidden away from the public, and so we regard this as a rare and valuable opportunity to view such a diverse, historic and brand-agnostic collection of Marilyn Monroe images.
What have you learned about MM relationship with her photographers through this collection?
As a photographer, myself, I know you have to love your subject just a little to capture the most compelling images. All of the celebrated photographers, who worked with Marilyn were captivated by her mesmeric beauty and fell in love with her to one degree or another. Some fell in love her with her artistic presence in front of the lens; others like George Barris and Andre´ de Dienes literally fell in love with her. George, in particular, became a dear friend right up to the end of Marilyn’s life. She was, of course, aware of his affections, and the images they created together are almost universally warm, pure, playful and emotionally transparent. With De Dienes, a young buck with hedonistic tendencies in the 1940s, she was often much more flirtatious and sexually magnetic. Each of the iconic photographers represented in this exhibition - legends like Philippe Halsman, Ellliott Erwitt, Bert Stern, Milton Greene, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Bruno Bernard and Frank Powolony - all had a unique and fascinating relationship with Marilyn, and each one delivered something a little different…different but always magical. Bert Stern described his final shoot with Marilyn, just a few weeks before her death, as a “tantalising abstract hide and seek”.