McMichael - Canadian Art | Collection d'art Canadien


Back to Past Exhibitions

Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe

February 19 to May 15, 2011

Please note this exhibition contains images of partial nudity.

Born in Los Angeles, California in 1926, Norma Jeane Mortenson was baptized with her mother’s maiden name as Norma Jeane Baker. Like many girls who flocked to Hollywood with aspirations of becoming an actress, Norma Jeane visited the studio of Bruno Bernard (known as Bernard of Hollywood), asking him to make her look sexy. She was discovered during a government photo shoot at a munitions factory, and Bernard is credited with introducing Norma Jeane to Johnny Hyde, the agent who helped her sign her first contract with Twentieth Century Fox. By the age of twenty, as she began her career in movies, she was renamed and recreated by the Hollywood studio as Marilyn Monroe.

The exhibition Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe contains a selection of approximately 150 works by artists Andy Warhol, Allen Jones, Robert Indiana, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Douglas Kirkland and many others. Having travelled in six countries in Europe prior to its American, and now Canadian tour, the exhibition’s primary appeal offers engaging interpretations of Marilyn, ranging from playful and intimate portraits to others that are bold, decorative, and even transformative. The subject of the artists’ work is nothing less than one of the most celebrated popular icons in history. With their images they capture the determination, innocence and vulnerability of Norma Jeane Baker, as well as the vibrant personality, femininity and sensuality that became Marilyn Monroe. The exhibition demonstrates that the longevity of her popularity stems, in part, from both the lessons (and myths) of her life and death as well as from the symbolic powers of her visual image.

The show challenges us to understand how and why these images have become part of our culture. Obviously beautiful, Marilyn was just one of many beautiful people in Hollywood. Perhaps the reason she remained so captivating was her life story: Monroe’s loveless childhood, her rise to stardom and equally spectacular slide, her unhappy affairs and early death formed a necessary counterweight to the glamorous visuals. To most commentators, Monroe is a bundle of paradoxes. She’s sexual but innocent, that womanly body vying with that little-girl voice. She’s vulnerable but also driven and calculating in her pursuit of star status. Photographer Milton H. Greene, a glamour photographer who worked for Life, Look and Vogue and later became Monroe’s business partner, catches some of these contradictions in the so-called “Ballerina Sittings.”

The camera couldn’t get enough of Monroe. She was possibly the most photographed individual of the twentieth century. But her needfor the camera was just as insatiable. That Marilyn Monroe is a carefully crafted persona as well as a legend is one of the show’s main themes—she herself said, “I’m an artificial product.” More than Monroe’s beauty and mystery is her story, emblematic of commodifying the individual. This is the interpretation in artist Andy Warhol’s famous, colourful images. He loved her whole essence, but wanted to show to the world, “Look, this is what we did to her.”

As Marilyn develops as a mature actress, she can be observed both behind the scenes and in the spotlight of high society, film and theatre. The most intimate and lasting images of Marilyn are taken in photograph sessions in the final months of her life. In her final magazine interview in 1962, she tells a reporter, “Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe. I don’t mind making jokes, but I don’t want to look like one… I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.”

Whether visitors to the exhibition lived during Marilyn’s lifetime or developed a fascination with her following her death, this exhibition offers an insight into the life of a woman who is firmly entrenched in North American and world-wide culture.

Curated by Artoma, Hamburg, Germany. Tour organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.


Marilyn in Canada

February 19 to May 15, 2011

Marilyn Monroe’s iconic presence has been embraced by many cultures beyond her American birthplace. Her public image has served as a multifaceted symbolic muse representing a range of assigned roles and values providing inspiration for works created by a variety of artists who offer their ‘remembrances’ expressed through many artistic forms.

As an introductory and complementary component for the larger travelling show, Marilyn in Canada provides a Canadian connection to remembering and re-visioning this cultural figure.

One such connection includes works by George S. Zimbel, an American photographer who immigrated to Canada in 1971. He participated in the original photo session with Marilyn Monroe that was staged in 1954 during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. Images from this filmed session have, through continuing appearance in reproductions, bolstered the iconic status of the actress while also inspiring artists to reinterpret this particular moment in popular culture history. 

Marilyn in Canada features photographs, paintings, sculpture, and prints by artists who have inscribed Monroe’s public image with their own culturally-filtered interpretations which also serve as commentary on the influence of American popular culture in Canada.

Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe is curated by Artoma, Hamburg, Germany. Tour organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.
Marilyn in Canada is curated by Chris Finn, Assistant Curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.



Exhibition Merchandise

Follow mcacofficial on Twitter
“Here’s to you” from The Last Sitting
Bert Stern

“Here’s to you” from The Last Sitting, 1962/1978
© Bert Stern

Ballerina Sitting
Milton H. Greene

Marilyn Monroe, “Ballerina Sitting,” 1954
Inkjet print
© 2011 Joshua Greene

After Andy Warhol
After Andy Warhol
Marilyn, published by Sunday B Morning, 1967/1978
© Andy Warhol Foundation











Marilyn with Mountie
John Vachon (1914–1975)

Untitled (Marilyn with Mountie), 1953
photographic reprint
61 x 51 cm
Courtesy of the Estate of John Vachon and Dover Publications Inc.



ContactPrivacyAccessibilityAcknowledgementCaring for Artwork
© 2017 McMichael Canadian Art Collection - An Agency of the Government of Ontario