Warhol started experimenting with silkscreen printing techniques in August 1962, just days before Marilyn’s tragic death. “The rubber-stamp method I’d been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect,” Warhol recalled in his memoir POPism.
“My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face—the first Marilyns.”
In the 1953 thriller film, Marilyn played femme fatale Rose Loomis, an unfaithful wife who schemes a deadly plan against her older husband while they holidayed at Niagara Falls.
The original publicity photo of Marilyn for Niagara is in black and white and shows the actress up to chest height. For his paintings, Warhol cropped the photo to draw more attention to Marilyn’s face. Some of his portraits are in monochrome while others are painted in bright, imagined colours. “As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colours: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colours, that’s all,” Warhol explained.
While Marilyn Monroe was 36 years old when she died, Warhol’s portraits freeze her eternally at the age of 26, the year she became one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. In addition to Niagara, 1953 saw the release of her acclaimed films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire.
By repeating her image endlessly in his art, like a Campbell soup can, Warhol turns Marilyn from a real person into a product that can be manufactured and consumed. As the Pop artist once said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”
Anonymous street artist Banksy has paid homage to Warhol’s Marilyn with his artwork Kate Moss, which features the English supermodel’s face with Marilyn’s hair. Meanwhile, Mr Brainwash’s Spock Monroe fuses Marilyn with the famous Star Trek character, while contemporary artist Gary Hogben has mashed-up Marilyn and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a work titled Boris Monroe.
The Pop artist’s obsession with celebrity, beauty and death are all channelled into his portraits of Marilyn. A year later, Warhol went on to create his sensationalist Death And Disasters paintings, which repeated horrific images of race riots, electric chairs, suicide victims and car crashes. “Every time you turned on the radio they said something like ‘4 million are going to die.’ That started it. But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect,” Warhol said of the inspiration behind the works.
In 1979, nearly two decades after the first Marilyn paintings, Warhol started his Reversal series where he inverted his best-known artworks – turning light areas into dark and shadows into colour. Over the next seven years, Warhol created a new series of Marilyn (Reversal) paintings, in essence making reproductions of his own reproductions.
You can find one of Warhol’s first paintings of the actress, Marilyn Diptych, at the Tate Modern in London. In America, New York’s Museum of Modern Art holds Gold Marilyn Monroe from 1962, while the Cleveland Museum of Art has Marilyn x 100, the largest of the Marilyn paintings. The Leeum Samsung Museum in Seoul has the mesmerising Forty-Five Gold Marilyns, made in 1979 as part of Warhol’s Reversal series.
Warhol’s ‘Shot Sage Marilyn’ sold for a record-breaking US$195 million (£158 million) at Christie’s New York 9th May 2022. The much anticipated sale resulted in the work becoming the most expensive 20th Century artwork ever sold at auction.
Bought after only 4 minutes of bidding by dealer Larry Gagosian, ‘Shot Sage Marilyn’ pushed Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled Skull Canvas from the top sale spot - it had sold for US$110 million in 2017. With all proceeds from the auction going to charity, it represented the largest philanthropic sale since the 2018 Rockerfeller auction.
With Christie’s describing the silkscreen print as ‘one of the rarest and most transcendent images in existence,’ it is no surprise that this much-loved pinnacle of Pop Art secured a pretty penny - albeit less than its pre-sale estimate.