Marilyn Monroe and Art

Marilyn Monroe looking at a statue of Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years." Photo taken at William Goetz's house, 1956

Marilyn Monroe looking at a statue of Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.” Photo taken at William Goetz’s house, 1956

For those who follow my blog, you may have noticed that I have been researching stars and celebrities of the mid-20th century over the past several months. Out of all of the people that I have studied thus far, Marilyn Monroe stands out as one of the people who is most interested in the Western artistic tradition. I was surprised to make this connection, because it never occurred to me that Marilyn would be interested in visual art.

As an art historian and educator, I especially enjoyed reading about Marilyn’s experience in taking an art appreciation class (one biographer writes that Marilyn’s class was at UCLA, but her autobiography says that the course was at the University of Southern California). In her autobiography, Marilyn shared her opinion of her art appreciation teacher and the course:

She was one of the most exciting human beings I had ever met. She talked about the Renaissance and made it sound ten times more important than the Studio’s biggest epic. I drank in everything she said. I met Michelangelo and Raphael and Tintoretto. There was a new genius to hear about every day.

At night I lay in bed at night wishing I could have lived in the Renaissance. Of course I would be dead now. But it seemed almost worth it.1

I was so touched to learn about the great impact that this teacher had on Marilyn Monroe. I can only hope to be as inspiring of an art instructor! After the course, Marilyn continued to learn about art, and I was especially amused at an anecdote about how she read a disappointing book about Goya (which, fortunately, didn’t hinder her enthusiasm for Goya’s art).

Marilyn Monroe posing with hairdresser Sidney Guilaroff's statue of the Discobolus ("Discus Thrower"). Photo by Milton Greene, 1956

Marilyn Monroe posing with hairdresser Sidney Guilaroff’s statue of the Discobolus (“Discus Thrower”). Photo by Milton Greene, 1956

To further her knowledge and experiences with art, Marilyn attended art exhibitions. She particularly liked the sculptor Rodin, and attended the 1955 exhibition of Rodin’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was recorded that she was particularly drawn to Pygmalion and Galatea and The Hand of God.2

rodin-the-hand-of-god-alternate

Auguste Rodin, "The Hand of God," modeled 1898, cast 1925, Rodin Museum

Auguste Rodin, “The Hand of God,” modeled 1898, cast 1925, Rodin Museum

In fact, Marilyn liked The Hand of God so much that she bought a bronze sculpture of in 1962 (similar to the one shown above), for more than one thousand dollars. This was the last year of Marilyn’s life, and her emotional well-being was already unraveling. She promptly brought the statue to her psychiatrist and engaged in a bizarre and troubling conversation in which she kept asking the doctor to tell her what he thought the work of art meant. I think it’s very interesting that Marilyn felt an affinity with this particular sculpture near the end of her difficult life: the Rodin Museum says that this hand was used as a study for Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” in which the hand gestures express farewell and despair.

Marilyn collected other art, too. I’m particularly intrigued that in July 1955, she purchased a bust of Queen Nefertiti for her Waldorf-Astoria apartment in New York (although I can’t find information as to whether this was an authentic bust or a copy of the famous bust located in the Neues Museum in Berlin). As a well-established symbol of feminine beauty, it is intriguing to me that she would be drawn to an idealized image of Egyptian beauty.

Does anyone know what becaome of Marilyn’s art collection? Was it dispersed along with other parts of her estate?

1 Marilyn Monroe and Ben Hecht, My Story (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield) p. 139-140. Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=VbOIqnTRumIC&lpg=PP1&dq=marilyn%20monroe%20my%20story&pg=PA139#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Anthony Summers, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Available online at: https://books.google.com/books?id=g8gJZltbC2MC&lpg=PP1&dq=goddess%20marilyn%20monroe&pg=PT242#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Oskar Kokoschka and Adele Astaire

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1929

Lately I’ve been reading The Astaires: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley. I knew a little about Fred Astaire’s career with Ginger Rogers before starting this book, but I didn’t really know anything about his successful stage career with his older sister, Adele. In many respects, it seems like the critics really considered Adele to be the true star of the duo, not Fred.

Adele attracted many admirers and fans, including the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. While visiting London, Kokoschka met Adele backstage and asked if he could paint her portrait. She agreed and twice a week, for two months, Adele went to Kokoschka’s studio for sittings. However, the painter and the dancer did not get along well. Adele “disliked Kokoschka’s lascivious manner and resented his refusal to let her see the work in progress.”1 She disliked the finished portrait (which she finally saw years later!), and frankly, with the disproportion of the figure’s facial features and head, I can see why. The balloony head lacks the intensity and immediacy that is found in some of Kokoschka’s other portraits.

Kokoschka, "Adele Astaire," 1926.

Oskar Kokoschka, “Adele Astaire,” 1926.

Open sheet music and a piano are located on the left side of the painting, next to Adele.She also is flanked by her Aberdeen Scottish terrier on the right and an image of Leda and the Swan on the left. I can’t find out why Kokoschka specifically would have included Leda within this image: perhaps this was a way to suggest Adele as a desirable, or perhaps Kokoschka liked this subject matter (since his does return to it at least one other time in his career).

The painting was discussed in a TIME article which was dedicated to Kokoschka (5 May 1958). Adele was interviewed for the article and expressed her dislike of the painting. And three weeks after the article was published, Fred Astaire wrote a letter to the editor of TIME magazine to express his opinion of the painting:

Sir:

With your permission, I’d like to give my opinion of the Kokoschka picture of my sister (mentioned in the May 5th Art section). I think it’s a hideous mess. As great an artist as this man may be today, he certainly goofed in 1926. My sister is a very pretty girl.

Fred Astaire, BEVERLY HILLS3

I haven’t been able to come across much information about Fred’s thoughts on visual art, so I think that this letter is especially precious. And I can’t agree more: I think Adele’s portrait is “a hideous mess” too. I like to imagine that Adele might have humorously made this type of gesture when she finally was able to see Kokoschka’s portrait:

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

Adele Astaire Thumbing Nose, n.d.

1 For more description and discussion of this painting, see Kathleen Riley, The Astaires: Fred and Adele, p. 110. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Fred Astaire, “She Was Framed,” TIME, 26 May 1958.

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Grace Kelly’s Pressed Flowers

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from "My Book of Flowers" (published 1980)

Grace Kelly measuring one of her flower collages, from “My Book of Flowers” (published 1980)

I’ve been reading My Book of Flowers by Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly) this past week. I’ve been fascinated to learn about this creative outlet for Grace Kelly, which I imagine gave her much satisfaction since many of her early expressions of creativity (as an actress) were put aside after she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. This book was published in 1980, just two years before Grace Kelly was in a fatal car accident in September 1982.

I especially love My Book of Flowers because it explains Grace Kelly’s thought process and techniques for creating her pressed flower collages. For her, the physical process of touching the flowers and carefully working with her hands provided satisfaction: “…I prefer to use the tip of my fingernail or a small stem to move the petals into place. It is not only that the eyes find pleasure in finishing the pressed flower picture, but just sliding the flowers into place brings that same kind of tranquility as doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting.”1

Grace Kelly also explained that spacing of flowers is really important, especially when creating geometric collages that need to maintain a sense of “pristine formality.”2

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed flowers in a geometric pattern with protea leaves, periwinkle, viola, daisies, and a yellow daffodil, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, flower collage with white phalaenopsis orchids from Ceylon, bougainvillaea and periwinkle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, Jasmine, Prunus Leaves

Grace Kelly, pressed collage from a branch of jasmine, prunus leaves, and pale davidii leaves known as “the handkerchief tree,” n.d.

Grace Kelly, Poppies, Buttercups, Wild Grasses

Grace Kelly, pressed collage “to capture the mood of a summer’s day” with poppies, buttercups, and wild grasses, n.d.

Grace Kelly, jigsaw puzzle, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage like a Provençal print or a Liberty fabric, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

Grace Kelly, pressed collage with a reconstructed red rose and hydrangea flower from California, with pink pelargoniums from Spain, n.d.

I particularly like this last collage by Kelly because the dark background reminds me of the paper flower collages that Mary Delany created in the 18th century (such as this one of the passionflower). Delany’s collages (which she called “paper-mosaicks”) were made from hundreds of pieces of tissue paper that were carefully cut and layered (and occasionally were touched-up with watercolor). Mary Delany’s collection of work is located at the British Museum. Grace Kelly discusses Mary Delany’s work at length in My Book of Flowers, so I think it is very likely that Kelly had Delany’s work in mind for this particular collage.3 Perhaps Kelly even thought that her “reconstructed red rose” (made from separately-dried flower petals) was similar to Delany’s process in constructing flowers out of cut pieces of paper.

It makes sense to me that Grace Kelly would be interested in creating pressed flower collages, not only as a creative exercise, but from a historical standpoint. Pressed flower collages historically have been associated with restraint and decorum, which are two things that I associate with Grace Kelly (both as an actress and a princess). For one thing, creating flower collages was popular among women during the Victorian era (the age of decorum and restraint!). And, in a ironic way, this restraint and decorum is also associated with the true origin of pressed-flower making, known as the art of Oshibana in Japan. This form of art began in the 16th century, allegedly was created by Samurai warriors as a way to practice patience, restraint, and concentration, as well as harmony with nature.

Although it seems unlikely that Victorian women or Grace Kelly would even be paired with Samurai warriors in the same sentence, I’m really tickled that the art of creating pressed flowers has found resonance and meaning across different time periods and cultures. Perhaps this international art form is another way that pressed flower collages helps to embody Grace Kelly’s role as a diplomat and representative of a principality. Several of her collages bring together flowers from different countries too, which in a way is akin to the role she needed to perform as a political figure. This type of international harmony fits well with what Grace said about flowers and her immediate environment too:

“Through working with flowers we began to discover things about ourselves that had been dormant. We found agility not only with our fingers but with our inner eyes in searching for line, scale and harmony. In bringing out these talents within ourselves, we gained a dimension that enabled us not only to search for harmony in an arrangement, but also to discover the importance of carrying it into our lives and our homes.”4

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

Grace Kelly at an exhibition of her flowers at Galerie Drouant in Paris, 1977

1 Princess Grace of Monaco with Gwen Robyns, My Book of Flowers (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 47.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 See discussion of Mary Delany on Ibid., p. 144-147.

4 Ibid., 10.

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Barnett Newman’s Slashed Paintings

Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68

Barnett Newman, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, 1967-68. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

I’ve been reading this afternoon about three specific instances in which Barnett Newman paintings were slashed. The first instance of damage occurred in 1982, when a veterinary medical student attacked Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70, oil on canvas; 274 x 603 cm). The painting, which was on display at the Nationalgalerie Museum in Berlin, offended and frightened the student, who claimed that the painting was a “perversion of the German flag.”

The second and third incidents in which a Newman painting was damaged were performed by the same person, at the same museum! In March of 1986, Gerard Jan Van Bladeren walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and used a box cutter to slash eight incisions into Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (shown above). Van Bladeren, a mentally-disturbed realist painter who rejected modern art (and wanted to make Newman’s painting serve as an example of his rejection), was arrested and served five months in jail.

However, Van Bladeren should have been watched more carefully: over ten years later, in 1997, he walked into the Stedelijk Museum again. Upset over the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, Van Bladeren decided to attack another painting by Newman, Cathedra (shown below). Van Bladeren used a small Stanley-brand knife to slash this painting seven times. Afterward, Van Bladeren calmly leaned against a wall and waited for the police to arrive!

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951

Barnett Newman, Cathedra, 1951. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 18′

Such marks on Newman’s monochromatic surfaces are hard to hide, and pose a problem for conservators. In fact, when Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was not put public display until 2001, it was met a lot of criticism. The Stedelijk Museum was upset with the restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, and some said that the painting lost its appeal due to the mishandling and misapplication of paint. When the Stedelijk Museum opened in a new location, the Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was put on display in the new building in 2014. The museum celebrated (and also justified) the return of this restored painting with this video:

The Stedelijk Museum decided to use their own in-house conservators to restore Cathedra, which arguably would have been an even more difficult project because of the varied layers of paint. This variation contributes to the ethereal nature of the painting, since the painting seems tangible and intangible at the same time. It seems like the museum is happy with their conservation efforts for Cathedra, since the painting is highlighted in the video above (and in fact, seems to get even more praise for its visual properties than Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III).

I think something very bold, powerful, and even ineffable is expressed by paintings by Newman, especially because they often appear on a large scale. The paintings overwhelm and fill the visual field of the viewer, and perhaps these factors contributed to how these vandals felt unsettled (and subsequently reacted to) Newman’s works of art. (It is interesting to me that the two Stedelijk paintings are the same size!) Perhaps Barnett Newman might even have been able to understand these attacks, since he wrote in 1943, “The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life.” Perhaps these sublime “metaphysical secrets” are too unsettling for some people to have revealed, and they react in a violent way?

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Art Restitution and Historical Injustices

Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum Wikipedia

This week my students and I have been talking about whether the Parthenon Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon which are currently in the British Museum, also called the Elgin Marbles) should be returned to Athens. The Greeks perceive the removal of these sculptures in the early 19th century as an ethical injustice to their people, partially since they were removed by the British ambassador Lord Elgin during a period of Ottoman occupation in Greece. The Greeks have already prepared a space to house these sculptures, in the relatively new National Archaeological Museum building in Athens. In fact, activists are noting that next month marks the “black anniversary” of when the Parthenon sculptures arrived in the British Museum 200 years ago (on June 7, 1816). A recent news article explained that the Greeks are noting this historical marker by putting extra pressure on the British to return the sculptures.

I personally can see validity in reasons for why the sculptures should remain in London, as well as reasons for why they should be returned to Athens. These sculptures are part of both British and Greek history, not to mention the constructed Western canon that still exists today.1 My goal in exploring this debate with students is to help them understand how this controversy about ancient art helps to reveal historical and current values regarding art and culture.

As my students and I have been talking about the mounting pressure to return these sculptures to Greece, I have been thinking about how the act of restitution and repatriation is becoming a common practice. In fact, there has been more discussion of restitution and repatriation in the past few decades, especially for the Parthenon Marbles, than there have been since the 19th or early 20th centuries.

I think that there are several reasons for why art restitution is so popular and upheld today, but I personally think that there is one historical reason which has served as an major impetus in the past several decades. I asked my students what they thought might be this impetus for restitution, and I also asked why they think that today we are culturally uncomfortable with the idea of imperialism or a country/group/individual asserting power over another. Our discussion went something like this:

Student 1: We care about restitution and righting wrongs today because of the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Me: I think that helped to open up the door for it, especially in recognizing minorities and women.  But I think we can go even further back in time. What else happened in the 20th century which contributed to our current interest about restitution?

Student 2: Well, as students, our generation cares about social justice today. We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of minorities and underrepresented groups of all kinds, including those of different sexual orientations and religious minorities.

Me: Social justice is valued today. But why is that the case? Why do we care about social justice now instead of a century ago?

Student 3: Maybe the Civil Rights Act led us to care about social justice?

Me: I think the Civil Rights Act is part of it. But what else happened in the 20th century to draw awareness to social injustice? What previous events were perceived as unjust?

Student 4: World War Two and the Holocaust! In another one of my classes we have been talking about the long-lasting and devastating effects of this war.

Me: Yes! This is what I think too! I think that today we are uncomfortable with imperialism and nationalistic conquest because of what Hitler and the Nazi party did, especially because the Nazis are responsible for the horrific mass killings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. World War Two haunts the collective memory of our culture today, and for good reason. I think that World War Two will continue to shape and inform the way that we approach social justice, art and restitution for the rest of our lifetimes. All of these events that you have mentioned, like the Civil Rights Act and the feminist movement, have happened in the aftermath of World War II. And consider, for example, the stories that have appeared in the news of paintings and objects that have been returned to Jewish families after they initially were stolen by the Nazis during the World War Two era. Perhaps some of you have seen the Woman in Gold movie that was released last year, which followed the restitution of a Klimt painting to a Jewish family. This is just one example of restitution art; there are many more examples of restitution have occurred and many lost objects which still need to be found and returned.

Being influenced by such cultural memory of the Holocaust and Nazi party isn’t a bad thing at all – but it is good to realize that what we are experiencing is a cultural mindset (even a perhaps a trend, if you will). If the Parthenon Marbles do go back to Athens, we should realize that we will be making a statement about our own current values and cultural memory through the sheer act of restitution. And I hope, for that reason, that if the Parthenon Marbles ever do go back to Athens, that copies will be placed in the British Museum so that we can continue to have a dialog about changing cultural values and why these statues have traveled across Europe over the centuries.

1 For an excellent article on how the Parthenon marbles have influenced British culture and the Western canon, see Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art (Yale University Press, 1999, 43-83). Limited preview available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.