Aug. 5, 2008 is the 46th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, whose light burns as brightly as ever. Jean Harlow was more a vamp, Carole Lombard more an actress, and both died younger than Marilyn, who was 36. Yet they are remembered mainly by film buffs whereas she is known by just about anyone with ideas of sexiness and glamor.
But "known" is, of course, the wrong word. Her image is known, and that, as she ruefully said, was an invention. Even now, with the facts of her life having been repeated for more than half a century, it's the image rather than fact that holds interest. And that's perhaps the clearest illustration of what it means to have become a legend."Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe," the huge exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, traces her trajectory from model to starlet to sex symbol to icon.
It provides nearly all the famous pinup, publicity and documentary photographs instrumental in that ascension. It also offers many paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by contemporary artists, mostly German -- the exhibition was organized in Hamburg -- who treated the subject after her death.
But partly because the works are not arranged chronologically we get only a cloudy idea of the transformation of Norma Jeane into Marilyn, and partly because her image remains so strong we find the artists accepting rather than clarifying it.
That means the private Marilyn, who had 400 books in her library and constantly strove to "better" herself, does not appear in the show apart from quoted remarks. And the pathos of her death by drug overdose does not get much attention apart from three chilling paintings relating to the autopsy.
Instead, there are lots of pieces in which familiar photographs by, say, Tom Kelley, Milton H. Greene or Bert Stern have been appropriated and reworked, often more than once. So, inevitably, the later pieces become about how earlier artists treated Marilyn, and that usually takes precedence over anything new revealed in Marilyn herself.
There is the sense of even the most recent pieces, by artists not born at the time of her death, still being in the style that emerged at the end of her life: Pop Art. And Pop's pervasive brightness gives a brash quality that works against any of the art depicting Marilyn as more than an invention.
That she was more comes through a number of the photographs, which is unexpected, even ironic given that the making of her image began there. Still, photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Ernst Haas, Douglas Kirkland and Sam Shaw reveal more facets than do the paintings and drawings, warmly immortalizing the woman behind the icon.
---------- "Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe" is at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., through Sept. 21; gallery talks are 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, Sept. 11. 312-744-6630.