Exhibitions, News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Helen Razer meets Marilyn in Bendigo — but who’s the ‘real’ Monroe?

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The morning air was not far above freezing when I arrived yesterday in Bendigo with Eleni, my beauty therapist, to honour the memory of Marilyn Monroe. It may have been these conditions that caused us both to cry at an eight-metre high statue of the blonde, “That’s gross!” Perhaps when this thing with breasts the size and shape of torpedoes was installed back in February, in the place where small town monuments to the war dead are more generally found, it seemed sunnier.

But, the transposition of Marilyn as “the girl” from The Seven Year Itch being cooled in summer by up-draughts from the New York City subway to a bitter country winter just seems unkind. She looked freezing and helpless despite her size, and none of this was helped by the spectacle of straight men, largely absent as visitors to the exhibition itself, gazing up at her fibreglass panties. It seemed to us that they lived their lives like vandals in the wind.


And it seemed to me that it was not at all fair that the famous Travilla pleated cocktail dress depicted in sculpture was nowhere to be found inside the Bendigo Art Gallery. Nor was the Marilyn-coloured Jean Louis gown into which she was sewn before singing (or vomiting, to be more accurate) Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy Jr. Nor is the saucy pink stag-party cake of a dress, again Travilla, she wore for Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.

There are many practical and intriguing reasons that Monroe’s most recognisable gowns are not on display at an exhibition of Monroe’s gowns, and as I have no wish to dissuade you from attending this exhibition, I will not tell you what they are but encourage you to visit to find out. Let’s just say that if you always thought of the Actors Studio and its “method” mama and papa, Lee and Paula Strasberg, as cruel and cultish, you will not be moved from this view. The curators of this exhibition cannot be blamed for the insanity that led an anonymous bidder to pay $US4.6M to lock away a memory that belongs to all of us.

And, anyhow, there are still some nice very pretty, fairly recognisable items here. Even as it’s a blow not to see the Diamonds gown used on screen, it’s great to see its much saucier first iteration. The wiggle-dress into which Monroe shrugged to entertain US troops stationed at Korea is a peachy keen first exhibit. And, props to whomever it was that gave the final room of dresses in this exhibition the air of an upscale department store circa 1955. In a space of smoky mirrors and gowns ascending on a Hollywood-style stairway, all patrons become silent. It is only in this room that the promise of the gallery, to give us a Marilyn who is more than the public artefact or the private disaster, is partially realised.

It was only here that a crowd — made chiefly of women, partially of gay men and just a little of bored husbands who were all standing around the beautiful nude made famous in Playboy — began to experience the “icon” in the personal way I imagine many of them would have preferred.

MM web- Exhibition install images - 47

Much of this exhibition delivers frustration rather than revelation. We are not here to look to the “truth” of Monroe or of Norma Jean Baker. Or, at least, Eleni and I, both Monroe fans, had long ago abandoned the idea that we could ever know a woman whose own work was not to know herself. We wanted to understand, as I believe many other visitors did, why she resonates with us.

“If you can take your beauty therapist with you to show you the difference between the plain-cheesecake pictures of Norma Jean and the highly stylised press shot of her with Joe DiMaggio…. I can highly recommend it.”

There are plenty of the old, fairly wholesome Norma Jean “art studies” taken on beaches and these are in such over-supply, I guess, to show us the “essence” of the star and to prove that tedious old idea that “she was more beautiful without makeup”. But this fancy actually diminishes Marilyn, the human, of the agency she had in creating such an extraordinary vision. It’s not enough to say, with the use of some fairly pointless garbage such as an old-stained sweater or a few tiles from her Brentwood kitchen, that “she was real like us”.

She was, also like us, an elaborated version of femininity. And, honestly, if you can take your beauty therapist with you to show you the difference between the plain-cheesecake pictures of Norma Jean and the highly stylised press shot of her with Joe DiMaggio — “she put Vaseline on her cheeks there. She drew white to simulate shine on her lips here. She probably popped buttons inside her bra to simulate hard nipples down there” — I can highly recommend it. The woman’s devotion to the image of her body must be seen, surely, as a beautiful work and not as something that “stopped her from being the real Norma Jean”. It turned her into an artist.

MMweb2 - Exhibition install images - 36

Some of these ambitions are discussed in a good essay from the catalogue by Sue Gillett of La Trobe University. But, none of these are realised in an exhibition that gives us the same thing we could see on any Movie of the Week about the real Marilyn. Save, again, for the little last room where we are freer to honour Monroe as artist and self-devised commodity in the not-unfamiliar surrounds of an old-time upscale department store.

This exhibition may not advance understanding of the complicated relationship many of us have with Monroe. But, some of its items are a great way to settle that tedious and recurring Facebook dispute that Marilyn’s was the body of a “real woman”. She was a teeny, tiny lady who reportedly resorted to all sorts of methods to maintain her 22 inch (59 centimetre) waist, including enema. These acts, of course, in the context of the everyday are not to be celebrated. But, that they are not even referenced in a show that purports to chart the greatness of a self-sculpted woman — so much less vulnerable than that hideous fibreglass giant in the middle of Bendigo — is a great shame.

Still the dresses are nice. Bias-cut or hand-draped, these frocks don’t lose their shape.

[box]Bendigo Art Gallery and Twentieth Century Fox present Marilyn Monroe. The exhibition runs to Sunday 10 July 2016 and is open every day.[/box]

17 responses to “Helen Razer meets Marilyn in Bendigo — but who’s the ‘real’ Monroe?

  1. Yes I found this exhibition to be mostly ‘here’s her stuff isn’t it pretty’ with very little ‘here’s an insight in to why she was unique’. I really think with our current grappling with the cult of celebrity and the rise of Kim Kardashian and the like this was a missed opportunity to explore the idea of cultural icons and the business that goes with it. I can’t help wondering if Twentieth Century Fox’s involvement in the exhibition had something to do with that.

    1. I could not say that the same thought did not cross my mind, Maria!
      But, I think it may also be a problem of galleries themselves. While, sure, it is great that they want to give us exhibitions that we actually want to visit, they also seem to have this view of us as stupid. I mean, just because I don’t, say, understand minimalism or whatever does not mean I can’t understand, or at least feel, a more complex understanding of something like Monroe.
      I found the same with the Grace Kelly exhibition a few years ago. My review is somewhere or other on Fairfax if you can be arsed comparing.
      Anyhoo. We are all going to come see the pretty dresses. Why not give us something more than a jolly Candle in the Wind look that we’ve already seen a hundred times? It will dissuade no one from attending. It will give some of us a much richer experience.
      Good to learn you were disappointed in the same way that I was. And, my travelling companion.

  2. Very witty piece on disappointment. The regionals are regularly press-ganged into bums-on-seats missed-opportunity, uninspired lowbrow enterprises best suited to museums. A bit like Marilyn herself, perhaps – here symbolised by a gratuitous, towering historical monument to the traumatic evisceration of the self.

    War dead indeed.

  3. Marilyn would be very happy that some collector paid such an extravagant price for a piece of her history. Sadly she paid more and the reality is that we are willing participants in the collage of Marilyn that allows us to picture her in the way each of us would like. I wonder what Marilyn would think. Oh and that wit !!

  4. The ‘gross’ ‘statue’ is in fact a large sculpture, by American artist Seward Johnson, called ‘Forever Marilyn.’ The placing of it right in the centre of Bendigo’s CBD is perfect for inviting everyone (locals and tourists alike) to be part of the excitement of the exhibition. While clearly it’s hard to miss Forever Marilyn, if you prefer to look at war monuments, why not go to the War Memorial half a block away? Why can’t she be there? Why does there have to be, according to you, in that spot, a “small town monument to the war dead”? I’ll leave the fact that Bendigo is no longer a ‘small town’ out of it (eerrr, no I won’t, I just didn’t)… But I did want to let you know that the spot where Forever Marilyn is situated is also the spot where the big Christmas tree is put up each year (not that I have any major interest in that), so that space sees varying movable instalments at different times. I personally think her face looks a bit odd, and her hair looks grey, not blonde, but I love the back of the dress and how it blows in the wind, especially if you’re driving past from the aforementioned war memorial area towards the fountain. The way Seward Johnson has sculpted the billowing dress to look soft and gorgeous when it’s hard and immovable, I find very impressive.

    1. Hi Isabelle I didn’t say monuments to the war dead should be in a particular place in the centre of town. I said they *are* normally in a particular place in the centre of town. It was an observation and not a prescription.
      I apologise for depicting the size of Bendigo inaccurately.
      I cannot meaningfully apologise for finding this sculpture, of whose provenance I was aware, hideous. I did find it hideous—and it seems you are not entirely in love with it, either. As I mentioned, this may have had something to do with the weather.
      Also, the vulnerability of the thing shocked me. Why can we look up a skirt whose contents we otherwise only imagined on film? I felt that Monroe had nothing left for herself. It reminded me of a story Carrie Fisher tells about seeing a full-size Princess Leia statue depicted at a Star Wars convention. She looked up the dress of the thing representing her and found she was not wearing underwear. She wrote an angry note to George Lucas.
      As Monroe is not here to defend her honour, I do so on her behalf. I think it’s tasteless to invite the world to look freely up her skirt.

  5. I just don’t know where to begin, this ‘review’ sounds like the bitter rantings of one forced to visit an exhibition for which they held little knowledge or interest. Marilyn has held a special place in my heart since I was a child, so I anticipated this exhibition most anxiously . I was not “frustrated” or “disappointed” with any aspect of it, in fact quite the opposite, I was overwhelmed and emotional to have been in close proximity to the possessions and clothing of Marilyn Monroe.
    Many of my friends have also visited Bendigo and we all share the same feelings that we Aussies finally were able to see an exhibition of this calibre.
    I am puzzled that you call yourself a “fan” and write such a vitriolic, critical assessment on someone whom you supposedly ‘admire’. Please do not call yourself a fan.. We true fans have nothing but respect for Marilyn. That is all she wished for and we will cherish and honour her memory as she deserved.

    1. To say “I think this was an unsuccessful tribute to a person I admire” is a very different thing from saying “this is someone I don’t admire”.
      I understand that for you the feeling of proximity to the lady’s personal items was itself enough. For others, though, it’s not. There are different ways to curate textiles and one of the easiest is just to put them on display with a bit of a life story.
      There was more that could have been done here. I appreciate it’s more than enough for you and I do respect that but my duty in writing a review is to ask “is that enough for everyone?” I don’t think so. I want more of an effort from curators, and I am not the only reviewer to say this. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/marilyn-monroe-review-bendigo-art-gallery-exhibition-celebrates-stars-luminous-sensuality-20160310-gnfbc0.html
      We have to consider the responsibility of an art gallery, which is to shift our understanding of visual culture. BGA is not a museum. It’s a gallery. I think they could have done better. This is not saying at all that I don’t like Marilyn. It’s saying I think she deserves more.

      1. Firstly, how can you claim to “admire” somebody and go to every effort to humiliate and ridicule her memory eg “vomiting” in referral to her birthday message for JFK? Perhaps this was a cheap effort to gain sniggers at your attempt at wit? I don’t know quite how to take this..are you perhaps implying she was bulimic? If that’s the case then you need to do some serious research into her health and subsequent weight-loss.

        Your perverse description of the revered Forever Marilyn statue pretty much set the tone of what was to follow. Don’t mention the legions of fans and families who celebrated this moment by taking a gazillion selfies with her effigy and felt privileged to do so, instead you adopted the negative slant…”men peering up at her panties”..in effect, suggesting the statue was a token of sexual gratification.

        As my previous response stated you have not researched your subject matter . The reason that the ‘Diamonds’ gown was not on display, is because the fabric (satin) was initially glued to a felt material to maintain it’s shape. Unfortunately, the gown perished over time, the glue being a main factor to it’s deterioration.

        Glad to hear that your ‘beauty therapist’ escorted you to the exhibition, hopefully you learnt some tips on style if not humility.

        Thank you for emphasising that Marilyn was “teeny tiny” , as there is a long-believed myth that she was plus-sized. The 100,000 + visitors can now ascertain with their own eyes that Marilyn was indeed petite.
        Speculating how she maintained her figure..is just that..conjecture,.. amazing how people will believe and repeat any fodder they read in tabloid media.

        I feel that you were patronising to me in your statement that the exhibition was “good enough for me”. The average fan does not have the necessary funds to travel overseas to see all there is to offer (shock horror!..we have families and are on a budget) ! Actually, I reside in Sydney, and made travel arrangements in advance, because such an exhibition (and I reiterate) “of this calibre” has never graced our shores.

        You are welcome to post other negative links (which I may add are nowhere near as disparaging as yours) that support your negativity..but be aware that your opinions are in the minority.
        Finally, please do not refer to yourself as a “fan” or imply that she “resonates with you”. it is insulting to we true fans who will always hold a good thought for Marilyn.

        1. We differ in our view. You are grateful for the exhibition. I think the gallery (the gallery) has failed us. You conclude I am being elitist because I do not agree with you and because I do not think that the exhibition meets the artistic as well as the material curiosity some fans (whatever, say that I’m not one, it’s neither here nor there) may have. If this makes you feel that you have a more pure or justified kind of interest in Monroe or more right to speak “for the people”, that’s okay. But, it’s not a very good line of argument.
          I was not being patronising. To be patronising would be to ignore your comment. I was engaging you and explaining my reasons for saying that, in my view, the gallery had failed to do the most that it could.
          But, I guess you are fairly confident that I am being “elite”. Fine.

  6. The Bendigo Gallery has created a nice little market niche exhibiting dead women’s clothes (and undies). For regional art by living people try the Castlemaine Gallery.

  7. What is a ‘beauty therapist’? Making a point of being accompanied by yours to visit an exhibition of Monroe’s clothes and to examine a sculpture seems incongruous and rather weird.

    1. I guess it *would* seem weird to you, given that you have no idea what a beauty therapist does and are apparently unable to Google that mystery. Where the exact phrase appears about half a million times.
      But, let me try to explain.
      A beauty therapist is a person who administers beauty services.
      Marilyn Monroe was a person largely known for her beauty.
      Many books and essays have been written about how Marilyn Monroe attained and enhanced her beauty.
      This was an exhibition about Monroe’s appearance and beauty.
      This exhibition did not draw on the wealth of texts which give us hints on how she attained that beauty.
      I would not have mentioned the fact or profession of my travelling companion at all had she not enlightened me very specifically about some of the ways in which Monroe’s beauty was attained and enhanced.
      I believe describing this exchange with my expert friend pointed out a major flaw in the exhibition.
      I believe that the exhibition ought to have made a point of Monroe’s grooming practice for many reasons, not least among them the fact that this was a major part of Monroe’s work.
      She is loved for the very exquisite approach she took to her beauty. That her strong and documented volition in this matter was overlooked by curators is, in my view, a serious misstep.
      I hope this clears things up.

      1. Grooming??? She is not a dog!!! I groom my dog every 5 weeks!! Are you kidding me?? This was a human being just like yourself. Yes she was one of the most beautiful human beings (inside and out) and Hollywood Stars of all time. I take great offense to you trying to dissect the exhibit to her”grooming” or “beauty regimen”. That was hers and hers alone. Never duplicated, never replaced. This was an exhibit to share gowns she wore as well as other personal items, and rare photos. To think you went there looking to be “groomed” to be Marilyn–sorry dear you missed the mark BIGTIME!!

      2. Why did you delete my comment? If you are woman enough to voice your opinion how do dare edit or delete someone’s response to it? I am so shocked that you did this. The only good thing is I did a copy and paste so the Marilyn community will not only know what you said but you deleted my response. Thank you very much and have a good day!!!


        1. I am not the moederator. I have no power to delete your comment.
          I suggest you Google the usage of “grooming”. It is not an insult. “Personal grooming” is a common phrase.
          And, I have given up trying to explain that an exhibition about an individual’s beauty would do well to explore the topic of an individual’s beauty. If you wish to think that dresses and beauty contain no element of artifice and that Hollywood stars just woke up looking that way, good luck.

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