Given the amount of press and advertisement dedicated to the exhibition of Marilyn Monroe photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, I went imagining a pretty sizable event. The title of the exhibition, Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair also suggests this to be the case. After all, wouldn’t you dedicate a substantial space to the thing you love?
As it is, Marilyn is somewhat shoehorned in to a small corner of the NPG. She is also badly signposted – ironically, considering that a lot of the exhibition is comprised of magazine covers and publicity shots. After getting lost amongst a lot of Tudor aristocrats in ruffs, I eventually asked a security guard – regrettably in slightly tarty voice – where the pictures of Marilyn were (sounding like a total airhead, most likely) and was directed down to a little enclave between a staircase and a lift.
The curiously tiny amount of space permitted to her was made more irritating as there was a generous amount of pictures on display, enough to fill a proper room instead of a landing. However, the allure of Marilyn and the chosen title were both proven to be correct by the number of people who turned up. It would be worth adding that many of the people there were very well dressed and didn’t look like the typical NPG visitor, suggesting that they had come just to see Marilyn and that, therefore, a bigger space would have been justified.
One problem that kept occurring to me, and I guess this quite often happens with the deceased, is that the cult of Marilyn – the ‘Love Affair’ as it were – has become so over-tinged with sadness. There is a constant queue of well meaning people dressed in black ready and waiting with their Freudian couches to throw up pop psychology maxims about the sadness-yet-inevitability of her death. Similarly they bemoan the terrible handcuff that is the Cult of Celebrity whilst continuing to make Marilyn into a sexy saint.
I wondered if this had influenced the number of pictures of Marilyn lying down in various positions. After all, this type of picture ticks two points: they remind us of the dead woman and the sexy one, all in one succinct package. There is also a lot of focus on The Prince and the Showgirl, which because of the recent Eddy Redmayne and Michelle Williams film, is now saturated with soft sighs exhaling sympathy for Marilyn’s mental health.
What I would have liked to see after all these years, especially given that we have done so little to actually dismantle the apparently dangerous hounding of celebs since Marilyn’s time – in fact it has coagulated and expanded into an obese beast – would have been Marilyn as alive. Marilyn as someone with a very intelligent and knowing sense of humor – see The Seven Year Itch if you doubt me on that point – and Marilyn as someone whose curves really did represent bountiful beauty and enjoyment of life.
There are only a few photos in this tiny room which do this. Four pictures from The Picture Post which show her on a beach. Bikini shots, sure, which should be purely gratuitous, yet here she suddenly looks like authentically good fun. Like the beautiful, golden, child-like, goofy woman she was sporadically said to be.
Knowing what we apparently know about her personal life and her state of mind, these photos should be the most fake and yet they are not. Set against the monotony of insincere sentiment of the vulnerable Marilyn they are the only thing with a heartbeat.
“I’m so sorry” they whimper in your ear, “Oh, isn’t it terrible!” someone slightly drools. After a time, and without concurrent action, these sentimentalities become boring. If we British really love her, we should either consign her to sleepy history or truly resuscitate her as the emblem of sun-kissed beauty frolicking on a beach that promises cocktails and conversation in the evening. Bring her back as the truth of what we all want to be.