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The pinnacle, the definitive work of Pop Art, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is immediately recognisable in all its bright, glamorous glory. It is a vibrant and glamorous portrayal of the actress Marilyn Monroe that has become symbolic of 20th century popular culture. The series exemplifies Warhol’s pioneering printmaking technique, a medium that the artist found best suited his mission to reflect the icons and products of mass culture at the time.
Warhol was a highly experimental printmaker and the screen print technique allowed him to explore the range of graphic possibilities in a single image, manipulating colour and creating contrasting effects with each repetition. This act of printing and painting in multiple variations demonstrates Warhol’s playfulness with typical art processes that would lead him to a new phase of commercial painting.
“I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly line effect. With silk screening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. When Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face the first Marilyns.” — Andy Warhol.
Warhol first depicted Monroe shortly after her death in 1962 in the Marilyn Diptych, a series of screen print paintings based on a 20th Century Fox still taken by Gene Kornman from the 1953 film Niagara.
Warhol’s fascination with Monroe’s image continued in the years following and in 1967 the artist created a portfolio of 10 screen prints based on the same photograph as his iconic 1962 portrait. This body of work would later become the largest screen print series of Warhol’s career, establishing him in both critical and popular acclaim. As demonstrated by Marilyn Monroe 23 and Marilyn Monroe 27, each print is vibrantly coloured, a style that would be distinctive of Warhol’s subsequent Pop paintings. This radical graphic approach and broad spectrum of colours evokes Monroe’s vivacious yet complex identity, exploring visual representation in American popular culture. Each portrait illustrates a veneer of glamour and celebrity that seems impenetrable, whilst also hinting toward the darker realities of fame in contemporary society.
Throughout his career, Warhol made nearly 800 printed images on paper in addition to hundreds of trial proofs and unique variants of each of his portfolios. His work contributed significantly to what has been described as the ‘print boom’ of the 1960s, and Warhol later went on to set up his print publishing company Factory Additions, which continued to issue portfolios of his most recognisable themes.
The Marilyn series is a quintessential example of Warhol’s obsession with celebrity culture and repetition. His distinctive technique in screen printing, combined with the artist’s energy and willingness to self-publicise, allowed Warhol to play a significant role in redirecting the course of art history. The prevalence and proliferation of Warhol’s Marilyn revived the actress’s reputation in popular culture, whilst helping to secure Warhol as a celebrity within the commercial world he sought to portray.
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Marilyn (F. & S. II.31) © Andy Warhol 1967
Marilyn (F. & S. II.23) © Andy Warhol 1967
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.
Marilyn (F. & S. II.28) © Andy Warhol 1967