When one considers the iconic Marilyn Monroe, images of breathy sexuality come to mind. There’s Marilyn, demure yet daring as a rush of hot air from a subway grate lifts her pleated, white dress; Marlilyn wrapped in a cloud of snowy mink, her lips pursed and blood-red; Marilyn in a glittering sylph-skin dress, leaving nothing to the imagination as she sings her breathy rendtion of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”
The Marilyn shown in many images is the actress, laying her fame before her fans. Sexy. Untouchable. Make believe. To the curious, another tale is told, powerful in the way of fallen angels rooted in the untenable ground.
Anyone who has delved behind the facade of her celebrity knows her public persona is the least interesting part about her. Her world weariness, her increasing doll-like sadness and impressionable hope carve out the figure of a woman at odds with herself. She exists in the wrong time or place, fragile against an onslaught of teetering self-perception and the need for constant improvement. With her large, glistening eyes full of unrestrained trust and feeling, she is a throwback from another century: the 18th century. She is, as the man who produced some of her best photographs put it, an incarnation of the famous French painter, Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Voluptousness (Girl with Dove), Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790
The 2010 book Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters recalls a session with the legendary photgographer, Cecil Beaton:
“[He] saw her as a very paradoxical figure, a siren, a tightrope walker, a femme fatale and naive child, the last incarnation of an 18th century face in a portrait by Greuze living in the very contemporary world of nylons, sodas, jukeboxes and drive ins.”
I can’t help but see this myself. The reflection is somewhere in the eyes: wide, feeling pools waiting for the touch of the world–or hiding what has already been touched. Like Marilyn, Greuze’s figures are commonly clutching something to their breasts–an animal, a ribbon–giving viewers the sense of connection and shelter, exposure and quiet fear.
Young Girl in a Lilac Tunic, Greuze
Marilyn’s favorite photograph of herself as shown in ‘The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe’ was one of honesty and vulnerability. It was taken by Beaton on February 22, 1956. As Fragments describes it, “This photograph is . . . an improvisation. Marilyn pulled this carnation from a bouquet to put in her mouth like a cigarette, only later lying one sofa to place the flower on her breast in a gesture of protection and gift.” For a woman notorious for pre-approving which photographs were available to the public, this is a surprising choice. Like Greuze’s paintings, it is tender and idealized, nothing like the glaring (un)reality of Marilyn’s last sitting by Bert Stern.