lady painting

 

Jun 2003 Journal

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Art notes

The term 'photogenic' could have been invented for Marilyn Monroe. Blonde bombshell, waif, 50s siren, our lady of sorrows - Marilyn so enraptured the celluloid city that she became her own art form. The muse of her day, she made many photographic reputations and inspired some rather tacky paintings. They are featured in an exhibition at County Hall, where photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Milton H Greene, David Burke and Tom Kelley - he of the famous calendar prints - line up with their tributes. The cartography of her life is exposed: marriages, divorces, celebrity status, early death. Some photographers, like Bert Stern with his ten colour photographs taken just weeks before her death, present her at the peak of her luminous beauty; others expose her bitter loneliness. In his last photographs of her, taken in 1962, George Barnis alone manages to capture a fleeting precognition of Marilyn ageing. But Marilyn, like Diana, survived because she never grew old. One of the better paintings, Daniel Authouart's Adieu Marilyn, shows her lying on a bier, with the numbers 1-12 printed above her. The artefacts around her imply the hand of the pathologist - a potent metaphor for this diva.

The trouble with Marilyn as art form is that her purity does not lend itself to burlesque. Her glamour is the real thing. It comes from her soul. You cannot parody her any more than you can Ghandi. That's why Corinna Halthusen's digitally manipulated Marilyn triptych does not work. That's why Yongbo Zhao's spider-Marilyn is offensive and absurd. That's why morphing her into Andy Warhol is pointless. Marilyn is the tragic creation of us all - a star sacrificed on the altar of relentless public demand.

Glossy red lips like Marilyn's are part of the glamour trawl of French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, who was at his zenith from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. He died in Paris in 1991 aged 62. Bourdin's first retrospective at the V & A (until 17 August) is an exposé of the rapacious fashion world not so far removed from the one which devoured Marilyn. But Bourdin, who worked for Vogue and promoted the shoe industry, was something of a visionary, because there is a hard edge to his sassy depiction of extreme glamour. There is a story behind his work that he's not telling you. He often obscures the faces of his models: a girl wearing very little in red peers into a mirror to view her darker side; one face peeps out of a sea of black umbrellas. Everywhere are metaphors: bikinis, lipstick, a desert. Sometimes the girls are wooden mannequins, but it hardly matters because in Bourdin's lexicon, flesh-and-blood women aren't real either. You are led up blind alleys; it is your job to finish the story. On fashion shoots Bourdin would photograph landscapes and cityscapes, always showing an obsession with shape and texture rather than content. They appear as a counterweight to the fashion world he regards with such a cynical eye.
Gloria Tessler

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