Biography

Sophia Boullier

Figure 1. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962. Acrylic paint on canvas. Tate Gallery, United Kingdom.

Figure 1. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych (1962) Acrylic paint on canvas, Tate Gallery, United Kingdom.

While biography is largely defined as a literary form, artists have also given visual expression to biographical narratives. A biography is a “form of literature, commonly considered nonfictional, the subject of which is the life of an individual. As one of the oldest forms of literary expression, it seeks to re-create in words the life of a human being—as understood from the historical or personal perspective of the author—by drawing upon all available evidence, including memory as well as written, oral, and pictorial material.”1 Art historians use biography to interpret works of art, relying on either the life story of the artist, or of the subject depicted.

In the case of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962), the biography of the iconic American actress is foundational to understanding the work. Warhol used a single publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe from the movie Niagara (1953), a popular Twentieth Century-Fox production in which Monroe played a leading role. Her pose was typical of her many publicity images; with languorous eyes and mouth seductively half open, images like this helped to create her status as a sex icon.2 Warhol screen-printed this one photograph 50 times, in grids that appear on each of the diptych’s two canvases.  The set of photographs on the left show Monroe in four vivid unnatural colors, with chrome yellow hair, chartreuse eye shadow and smeared red lipstick, a caricature of the way in which she would present herself to the world. In this way, Warhol emphasizes the superficial mask-like nature of all celebrity by exaggerating Monroe’s make-up and reducing her to the physical features for which she was celebrated.

Using Monroe as a subject meant that Warhol’s image would be immediately identifiable. She first gained popularity when she graced the cover of LIFE Magazine in January 1951, and her stardom grew steadily thereafter.3 While she was often physically typed as the vivacious and highly sexualized blonde, her studio sought to “manufacture a fantasy of femininity that appealed to the broadest possible audience, and did so through her rendering of Peggy in Clash by Night (1952) which explored a relatable sexuality that broadened her fan base.4

Warhol captures this manipulated aspect of Monroe’s biography in the repetitive nature of his work, as he manufactures her image in the same ways in which Monroe’s studio manufactured her. Her public persona became an object of fascination to the American public and she was frequently featured in popular circulation and fan magazines, such as Time, Newsweek and in daily newspapers.5 The media’s little interest in the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s actual identity allowed for the formation of a simplified public persona: a vibrant, effervescent object of heterosexual male fantasy and living feminine goddess. Warhol’s flattened painting parallels the public’s very superficial engagement with Monroe as an individual.

Warhol’s choice of Monroe as a subject is typical of the works of other Pop artists in the early 60s, who used vernacular imagery such as cartoon images, advertising logos, or photographs of famous celebrities.6 In doing so, Warhol reflects on the manufacture of both images and celebrities as commodities. His repetitive production of a publicity photograph of Marilyn Monroe showcases a keen awareness of the mass veneration of celebrities and their constructed personas. His use of the religious format of the diptych would seem to suggest Monroe’s transformation into a secular saint.

Later in life, Monroe suffered from extreme depression and drug addictions, leading to multiple attempts to take her own life and her eventual death on August 5th, 1962 by suicide.7 In the ensuing four months, Andy Warhol made over twenty silkscreen paintings depicting Monroe; Marilyn Diptych is one of them.  His deliberate dimming of Marilyn’s image from vibrant colors to shallow, black and white tones echoes her fading stardom and possibly, her death, as she is almost indistinguishable in the images of the last column, on the far right.

The date of production adds to a reading of the work as commemorative. Her death ended the production of new images of her, but transformed existing ones into objects of veneration. Her suicide stimulated the public’s fascination with her enduring persona. Warhol’s work visualizes many of the complex themes surrounding the construction of Monroe’s life story.  Her biography is indispensable to the purpose and aesthetic qualities of the work. While incorporating the biography of Andy Warhol could be yet another avenue through which to interpret Marilyn Diptych, in this case, the biography of the subject is key to understanding the work on a cultural, conceptual, and historical level.

Footnotes

  1. “Biography.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 12th, 2015.
  2. Carl E. Rollyson,“Becoming a Star (1950-52)” in Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), 40.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 51-52.
  5. Ibid., 44-50.
  6. Arthur C. Danto, “Pop, Politics, and the Gap Between Art and Life” in Andy Warhol (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 24.
  7. Rollyson, 239-240.