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In 2018, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock gave a lecture on Marilyn Monroe at the Caixi Forum in Madrid. Despite the acres of coverage on Monroe’s life, Pollock stated, “there is very little analysis of her work. How did a white woman, uneducated and abused, become a star like one she was? Why was Andy Warhol crying at her death? Why did Elton John identify with her? Why did Madonna forge her image in Monroe’s likeness?”

In her latest book, Killing Men & Dying Women: Imagining Cultural Difference in 1950s New York Painting, Marilyn is a secondary subject (the painter Lee Krasner is the book’s primary subject.) The cover image is Nicky Bird’s ‘Dressed to Paint’ (1994), its title seemingly a pun on Dressed to Kill, Brian de Palma’s 1980 thriller noted for its depiction of sexual violence. In Bird’s mixed-media work, a woman artist sports a ‘Marilyn Monroe mask’ with a pink sheath gown and gloves – recalling Marilyn’s attire in the ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) – while brandishing a paintbrush like a knife.

For the book’s preface, Pollock chooses another Marilyn-inspired artwork, Kerry Filer Harker’s ‘mm Mark I’ (1994), which uses an image from Monroe’s 1962 photo session with Bert Stern. Her nude body is erased, leaving only her face within the cross she had marked on the photo to indicate she did not approve it. Following her death, Stern published his entire ‘Last Sitting,’ including the rejected images. In this artistic interpretation, Pollock suggests, the photo is reclaimed, with the model’s mark subsuming the photographer’s lens in a predominant “painterly gesture.”   

Lee Krasner, the author’s other subject, was already an important figure in New York’s abstract expressionist movement before she married Jackson Pollock, and guided him through his most fertile creative period. Following his untimely death, however, Krasner was relegated to the lowlier status of artist’s widow. As ‘Women Artists in Ascendance,’ a 1957 article for LIFE magazine revealed, women artists were routinely objectified. “None of them are at work,” Griselda Pollock comments on the accompanying photographs taken by Gordon Parks. “All are carefully posed in a studio that becomes a stage set in which carefully dressed women blend into their paintings, telling us nothing about their practices.”

“So, here is the question at the heart of this book,” Pollock writes. “What was it to be an artist and a woman – such as the brilliant painter Lee Krasner – if, in the chiasmic space of avant-garde art and popular US-American culture, to be the artist was iconically Jackson Pollock and to be a woman was iconically Marilyn Monroe?”

In 1953, Monroe attained superstardom with a triumverate of dazzling film roles (in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry a Millionaire.) She was also the cover girl (and centrefold) of Playboy’s first issue that December. In the same year, Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex were published. In 1954, as Marilyn plotted to leave Hollywood behind – “to rebuild herself among the intellectuals, actors and artists of New York – the other America” – the Dutch-American painter William de Kooning began an abstract portrait of Monroe for his series, Woman.

Red lips float in a noseless face beneath unevenly positioned, kohl-lined eyes topped with a crop of yellow hair. The same yellow across the lower torso reflects the Playboy jibe: blonde all over. Between these two areas of yellow, the breasts are red, rhyming with the mouth. These clashing colours create a sublimated yet brilliant representation of the female sexual body that is shockingly at odds with the sanitised mixture of sensuality and sweetness that characterised all but Playboy‘s writing on Marilyn Monroe. Joy and vitality – key qualities of the image of Monroe – are, however, singularly absent from de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe. In his painting we encounter an anxious girl characterised by uneven eyes, red lips and a cosmetic, manufactured but nebulous face. The painting seems unresolved even if the application feels characteristically energetic and confident. As an image, Woman has not arrived. This image remains a child in make-up.

In January 1954, Marilyn hit the headlines again with her marriage to baseball great Joe DiMaggio. While the couple were visiting Japan in March, she was invited to sing for the US troops stationed in Korea. While many in the audience would not have seen her movies, her pin-up status had made her a favourite. As Pollock observes, a “complex web of racial and sexual politics within the classic narratives of gender – men look while women watch themselves being looked at – was enacted when the Hottest Lady performed in the Coldest Zone … Marilyn Monroe played her part in the Cold War when she played to the troops in Korea. Her movies and her image, however, were also an integral part of a projected Americanism, an excruciatingly sexist, white, heterocratic, culturally imperialising world.”

Returning to de Kooning, Pollock compares the abstract expressionist Marilyn of 1954 to the Pop Art vision of Andy Warhol, created in the weeks after Marilyn died.

The images of Marilyn Monroe being refashioned from a pretty brunette factory worker into the peroxide blonde sex symbol of the 1950s are so familiar and so much part of the cultural sign systems that signify US-America in the 1950s, and feed a pervasive nostalgia for that moment, that perhaps we no longer see the violence implied in the manufacture of that beautiful image that Warhol aesthetically canonised in his pantheon of modern fame and death and that, in his painting Woman I, de Kooning radically eviscerated and exploded. Trained to keep her red lips over her teeth so that her smile would not be too gummy, and her eyelids perpetually drooping, Marilyn Monroe worked hard cosmetically to perfect the mask that would promise some ineffable pleasure from what constantly breaks through the icon as something else, what I shall term her riant loveliness.

‘Riant,’ incidentally, means ‘laughing, smiling, cheerful’ – a theme to which Pollock returns later in the book, applying Marilyn’s comedic flair to de Kooning’s portrait. 

While radically Americanising his own long and deeply admiring struggle with Picasso’s seated woman topos, de Kooning may also have looked with European eyes at the Hollywood manufacture of the cinematic woman, not yet epitomised and self-parodied by Monroe, the huge star, but present in her many early bit parts as much of those of her predecessor, pin-up supreme Betty Grable … As comedienne, so often mocked and self-mocking in her brilliantly realised roles in often banal movies, Monroe’s characters embodied the funny, accessible creature that was repeatedly massacred, film by film, in that movie culture … These works bring together the legacy of Picasso’s cut-up women and the iconic objectification of women in the blood-red lips and kohl-lined eyes that are the displaced and violated sign of her ‘wound.’ De Kooning uses Picasso to allow him to open up the female body so that out comes, not vanilla ice-cream (Mailer on Monroe), but ruby red jewels.

However, as Pollock admits in a passage recalling the theme of her Spanish lecture – ‘the imprisoned muse’ – the tragic aspects of the Monroe persona cannot be overlooked. 

No woman, I suspect, can look at either the image of Marilyn Monroe, or her replicas such as Jayne Mansfield, without pain … For all the gloriousness of the dramatic skills and the exceptional beauty as women of movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, the torturing of their bodies and the total neglect of their souls – to quote Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti on his wife, the artist Elizabeth Siddall – makes for a profound and contradictory anguish as we watch the fetishistic, corseted, sexually exaggerated distortions that betray – and sometimes knowingly perform to – the sadistic, sexual culture from which Monroe died metaphorically, even if her death was but the unfortunate accident of disastrously poor medical supervision.

After her marriage to Arthur Miller in 1956, Marilyn suffered an ectopic pregnancy which had to be terminated to save her own life, followed just a year later by a miscarriage. Both events are linked to her lifelong experience of chronic endometriosis. Pollock, like many women, can relate to Monroe’s private agony.

Having lived through three miscarriages to tell the deadly tales of shock, grief, prolonged depression and deepest self-doubt, I feel personal empathy for the woman behind the icon, Marilyn Monroe, when I read of this other Monroe body, with its briefly living and dying interior. Empathy, whether historically justified or not, breaks through the carapace of the fetishized image to a woman weeping in the hospital bed for yet another wanted child she had lost, for yet another lost chance to repair the psychological loss of her own mentally alienated long-absent mother by the mothering of the baby she might have borne. This narrative of her longings and losses imagines a female body differing from the caricature of female sexual desirability that the costume designers created for her. It forces into shocking conjunction the fetish body of the sex symbol and the body of the would-be mother, the bleeding, miscarrying site of death and mourning.

As Pollock observes, miscarriage is underrepresented in art. One of the first artists to confront this issue was Frida Kahlo, whose “graphic surreal vision exteriorises in phantasmic forms a female bodily interior as well as an imaginary internal world of objects and images, dividing the body into dark and light spheres, one reaching towards art via a palette, another evoking the multiplying cells imagined as a full-term child outside but still attached. Both bodies bleed; both weep.”

By engaging with other women artists, Pollock is able to unite the book’s two main subjects (Monroe and Krasner) in the closing chapters. 

Artists go to the movies, read newspapers and savour comics. The image of Marilyn Monroe in the year after her annus mirabilis of 1953 was visible in all sites of visual culture, from the lofts of New York painters to music, literature and her imitators in cinema. To promote The Seven Year Itch, premiering in New York on 1 June 1955, Sam Shaw’s image of Monroe featured on a massive billboard above New York cinemas in the iconic pose holding down her white billowing dress in a gesture of smiling ecstasy. None of us has ever been able to grasp what this actor was able to project before a camera … It was not as sex symbol that Monroe made her mark, but as life and joy. Her iconic ubiquity would become more evident as post-abstract painters turned towards an engagement with popular American cultural forms, but darkly when she had died, in Warhol’s mourning paintings of Marilyns in 1962. These would recycle her image of obvious celebrity and make her stilled iconicity visible had it not already become so, but without the ‘mark’ that I am suggesting surfaces, unacknowledged, in some of 1950s New York painting – in 1957, Lee Krasner’s paintings Sun Woman I and The Seasons. Here we might glimpse a painterly resonance, anti-iconic and non-conscious, with the creative work of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as image of life. I am not referring to the woman but to her aesthetic production, which was a singular loveliness that Monroe worked to perform on screen and in still images. Krasner’s paintings emerged from the action of one creative-artist-woman’s body as it reconfigured the feminine image for herself and endowed this spirit of Monroe’s often cinematically ‘abused’ body with a liveliness and lovely joyousness that we glimpse in Monroe’s own action before the camera of Sam Shaw, and sense in Kerry Filer’s recasting of the Stern photo-session. ‘Monroe’ iconised a model of sexualisation that her own performances – in skilled impersonation – exceeded by joyous parody.

Pollock first discussed that pivotal moment from The Seven Year Itch – where ‘The Girl’ stands over a subway grate to “feel the breeze” on a hot summer night in New York City – in ‘Monroe’s Gestures Between Trauma and Ecstasy,’ an essay for the 2016 anthology, Gesture and Film. Analysing “the failed photoshoot and filming of Monroe taking this pose on Lexington Avenue,” in reality a shrewd publicity stunt later “recreated away from the hooting crowds in the privacy of the Hollywood back-lot,” Pollock engaged with Aby Warburg’s “genealogy of the Nympha rather than what be expected – Venus.” She expands upon this theory in Killing Men & Dying Women

If Monroe was a brilliant comic actress, she was neither laughable nor comic, whatever idiotic role she had to play. What she created on screen or for the still camera was a word I found in Julia Kristeva’s writing about infantile laughter and the mother’s laughing face … The aura of Monroe’s face calls for this term: riant (laughing) loveliness that I relate as affect to the pathos formel of the Nympha, encoding a life force, a liveliness … Monroe offered neither the face of Garbo’s cold beauty nor cheap sexualisation. She created and projected the face of joy that was figured by half-closed eyes and mouth open in laughter … Proposing Marilyn Monroe as a riant pathos formel, the Nympha figure of life and loveliness, I escape the deadly triangulation Pollock, Monroe, Krasner that I posed at the start. Monroe-ness is indirectly discoverable and inscribed by the painter who might answer back to Julia Kristeva’s scepticism about laughter in women’s creation in what Lee Krasner, painting her way through grief and beyond what Prophecy had allowed to surface, I need to write another book. It will come from the other side of this coin where Monroe and Krasner might align, as creative women enabling us to image and to imagine difference in 1950s painting.

That ‘other book,’ as the author reveals in a footnote, is already in progress. In Monroe’s Mov(i)es: Nation, Gender, Performance, Griselda Pollock will “elaborate on Monroe’s creative conversations with and resistance to the dominant, even archetypal, phallocentric structuring of gender and fantasies of sexual difference in this decade in post-war US-America’s twin cultural capitals.”