Pop Art Before Warhol: McHale, Hamilton and Marilyn

We’ve already heard about Marilyn’s Scottish ancestry (see here), but as Craig Williams reports for Glasgow Live, local art pioneer John McHale was inspired by Marilyn – while his London-based colleague Richard Hamilton featured her iconic pose from The Seven Year Itch in an early installation, as shown above – long before Andy Warhol made her his muse.

“The Maryhill area of Glasgow can lay claim to a few things of note … But few would ever imagine that it could hold claim to a title many might believe is held by New York – that of being the birthplace of Pop Art. It wasn’t Warhol who could be considered as the true ‘forefather’ of Pop Art, nor indeed did he coin the ubiquitous term we all know today thanks (in the most part) to his work. That belongs to the almost forgotten Scottish artist, art theorist, sociologist and future studies searcher John McHale – a man born and bred in Maryhill.

McHale coined the term ‘Pop Art’ back in 1954 to describe the aesthetic expressed in art in response to the commercialization of Western culture … Yet it was to be the groundbreaking and hugely popular This Is Tomorrow exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1956 that would light the Pop Art touchpaper. The exhibition – which McHale played a central part in – was described by esteemed art critic Reyner Banham as being the ‘first Pop Art manifestation to be seen in any art gallery in the world’. McHale, alongside Richard Hamilton and John Voelcker, presented images from popular culture from magazines, film publicity posters and comics as part of the exhibition.

And as part of the exhibition, McHale was able to provide plenty of the material, having returned from a scholarship at Yale University with a black metal trunk full to the brim with magazine clippings … Yet it wasn’t until 1962 when Pop Art was effectively ‘rubber-stamped’ in the America psyche via the “Symposium on Pop Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in  New York – the same year that a certain Andy Warhol held his first ever solo exhibition in the city … Warhol’s exhibit featured some of his most well-known works, including ‘Marilyn Diptych’ … which repeated Marilyn Monroe’s image to evoke her ubiquitous presence in the media – it’s very possible that Warhol was inspired to produce the work by none other than Maryhill’s own McHale.

That’s because, in a collection of writings concerning popular imagery and fine art called ‘The Expendable Icon’ published in Architectural Design magazine in 1959, McHale referenced Marilyn Monroe in a section entitled ‘The Girl With The Most’. Monroe, who McHale regarded as ‘doubly interesting’ featured among many popular ‘ikons’ he identified alongside Elvis Presley – another of Warhol’s subjects. McHale wrote that the film star was ‘held up as an example of someone not only defined by personal iconography, but whose image is saturated in the media to such an extent that she serves as a model for universal imitation’.

1962 would see McHale emigrate to live in the US for definite … John McHale (Jr.) notes the difference between his father’s work and that of Warhol. Where Warhol was focused on being a celebrity artist, McHale’s agenda was to extend the boundaries of art to the masses according to his son … Incredibly, his father was also asked to explain his Pop Art ideas by Time magazine and be featured on the cover, but ‘regrettably refused for personal family reasons … From my discussions with my father it was apparent that he originally conceived of Pop Art as being more than just some glib advertising and reflection of popular culture … This may not seem radical in the present century, but half a century ago these were fighting words and cutting edge concepts. Pop Art was about opening up aesthetic possibilities and making art freely available to all …'”

Finding Marilyn at the Bus Stop

Marilyn never visited Glasgow, although her ancestors are rumoured to have hailed from Scotland. However, as Ken Smith records in his diary for the Herald, several would-be Monroes have passed through the bus stops of Castlemilk…

“OUR bus stories brought back memories for entertainer Andy Cameron who was a bus conductor in the early 60s. Says Andy: ‘When passengers had no money for their fare they could ask for a Pink Slip on which they wrote their names and addresses so that they could go to the Bath Street office and pay it later.’

‘What always surprised me was the number of famous people who lived in Castlemilk and were skint – Rock Hudson, Perry Como, Willie Henderson, Paddy Crerand, Harold Wilson, Marilyn Monroe – they were all on my bus and signed a Pink Slip.'”

Marilyn Double Bill In Glasgow

Marilyn will be honoured with an unusual double bill on Friday May 5 at the Britannia  Panoptica Hall in Glasgow. Starting at 7:30 pm, one of her most obscure films, 1951’s Hometown Story (in which she appears only  briefly, but makes a strong impression) will be followed by The Legend of Marilyn Monroe (1966), one of the first (and best) documentaries made about her  – and all for just £5, so don’t miss out!

Marilyn Vs Forever Blonde

Sue Glover’s Marilyn, currently showing at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, is described as  ‘a witty take on celebrity and feminism in the 1960s’ in The List. Others, including The Scotsman and STV, praise Frances Thorburn‘s performance as MM, but consider the play itself rather disappointing.

‘In act one we are given brief insights into the more interesting aspects of Monroe’s personality (such as her defence of her husband, Arthur Miller, against McCarthyism), as well as her burgeoning self-doubt and increasing reliance on drugs and alcohol,’ writes Mark Brown in Herald Scotland. ‘In act two, however, the play really comes apart, descending into a stereotypical “catfight” between Signoret and Monroe (caused by the latter’s affair with Montand) which is so blunt and badly written as to be almost an affront to feminism.’

These comments echo our own ES Updates Fan Review by Lorraine. It would seem that the more you know about Marilyn’s real story, the more problematic this play will be. But it all adds to the continuing public interest in Marilyn, and Frances Thorburn deserves our respect for taking on such a challenging role.

By far the most popular MM-related play among fans is Sunny Thompson’s one-woman show, Marilyn: Forever Blonde, which has toured the world to considerable acclaim. Sunny will appear at the Annenberg Theatre, Palm Springs, from March 3-22.

You can read fan reviews of Forever Blonde at MM and the Camera and Loving Marilyn.

Sue Glover’s ‘Marilyn’: MM Fan Review

Frances Thorburn, ‘Marilyn’

Marilyn, a play by Sue Glover about Monroe’s friendship with Simone Signoret during filming of Let’s Make Love, opened last Thursday at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. ES member Lorraine Trevenna was among the first to see it, and this is her review.

Hollywood, 1960

I was thrilled to learn that a play about Marilyn was coming to Glasgow, nothing Marilyn-related ever happens near me. I heard that the play was to center around Marilyn Monroe and Simone Signoret during 1960 when Marilyn was filming ‘Let’s Make Love.’

It had a cast of 3: Marilyn, Simone and a fictional character Patti, who was Marilyn’s hairdresser. The characters act out the drama in the comfort of their hotel suites at the Beverly Hills Hotel and talk about acting, sleep patterns, men and hair colour.

Photo by Richard Campbell

Marilyn

I knew from the offset that it was a fictional storyline, I just really hoped they were going to portray Marilyn accurately.. but of course, they didn’t. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was more like ‘Anna Nicole Smith’.. she was loud, crude, brashy and vulgar and quite frankly, psychotic.

I cringed when ‘Marilyn’ was doing a manic rendition of ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ while dry humping a sofa like she was a puppy on heat, or giving a pretend Oscar acceptance speech, going in and out of her stereotyped ‘dumb blonde’  persona, and wiggling around the stage.

One of the ‘highlights’ was when Simone Signoret couldn’t get a bottle of champagne open and Marilyn takes it from her, gets on her knees and puts it between her thighs and says “this should be easy for me to open, girls like I are used to spending a lot of time on their knees…” Need I go on? I’m sure you get the picture.

The Montand Affair

One of the most surprising things was how quickly they brushed over the whole Marilyn/Yves affair. The play was 1hr40…I think it was only mentioned for 5 mins.

Of course, Marilyn again comes off as a nutcase.. screaming and arguing with Simone about how much she loves Yves, while Simone, throughout the whole play, remained dignified and refined.

Verdict

I’m not going to badmouth the actress that played her: after all, she was only acting out the script she was given, but I felt it could have been so much better had the writer actually done her research into what Marilyn was really like.

If I could see past the hideousness that was the portrayal of Marilyn, then I did enjoy the play…as a play…

The stage was set up beautifully and the ending was a fitting tribute. Patti was telling the audience how Simone found out about Marilyn’s death with Marilyn standing behind a dark screen, saying “I’m wonderful, I’m wonderful…” getting more and more faint until the whole stage went black…silence.

I’m really happy I had the opportunity to see this play. I wouldn’t recommend it to a die-hard Marilyn fan, but if you’re a fan of theatre in general, then it’s worth checking out.

Video trailer

‘When Golden Couples Meet’, an article about Marilyn and Simone in The Independent

Marilyn in Glasgow: The Girl, Redrawn

Francis Thorburn talks about the challenge of playing Marilyn at the Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow.

‘When Frances Thorburn started rehearsals for the role of Marilyn Monroe in Sue Glover’s new play, ‘Marilyn’, she would occasionally have imaginary conversations with the long-dead star.

“I’m going to do my best to portray you well,” she would tell her.

Thorburn is keen that her portrayal in this play, which takes a snapshot of Monroe’s existence while she was making ‘Let’s Make Love’, does not diminish her subject. “One line I remember her saying in the last interview before she passed away is, ‘Please don’t make me out to be a joke.’ I have taken that to my heart.” Thorburn notes, too, that “Obviously Marilyn wasn’t perfect. She had some behavioural streaks that are hard to understand. But in those later years of her life she was on so many drugs – drugs to keep her awake, drugs to try to make her sleep. And I in my heart feel that she was a good soul. I want to honour that.”

In this new play, Glover takes as her focus the relationship between the actress and the French film star Simone Signoret, formed at a point in Monroe’s life when, as Thorburn points out, Monroe is emotionally “on a precipice”, suffering from insomnia and struggling in her marriage to Arthur Miller.

“I think if you get two icons in a room, or living across a hall, there are going to be [tensions],” Thorburn acknowledges.

“And also Simone is coming to Hollywood, so she’s coming to Marilyn’s domain. Meanwhile, Marilyn definitely wants to be the artist and taken seriously and talk about politics, which is what Simone is wonderful at.” Signoret was, she says, “phenomenal really: artistically, politically. And she was a beauty but she wasn’t about beauty. She hated that people would be wowed when she came in the room, so she dressed like a male.”

It is two days before she is to have her hair bleached the silvery blonde of Monroe’s and, in person, there is very little of “The Girl” about Thorburn. This is not surprising, given that she is a 21st-century woman living in a post-feminist world.

Thorburn is also a stage actor, not a film icon, working more in the chameleon-like tradition of deftly sliding between different roles. Her hair is the natural brunette that it has been all her life, her make-up subtle, her Glaswegian lilt only occasionally punctured by an energised girlish squeal. She is, she says, fascinated to discover how the colour-switch might change her. “Apparently, I have virgin hair,” she says, “which means it will be much easier to bleach. Will it alter how I perceive myself? I might have more kick, I might have more wiggle, I don’t know. Or I might be a little more introverted, more, ‘Don’t look at me’.”

When I call her several days later, post-transformation, it seems her feeling is very much the latter. Every time she passes the mirror she gets a flicker of shock, particularly since the blonde is so much whiter than what she expected. She is uncomfortable, too, out on the streets, “because I’m not very exhibitionist and people faintly turn their head”. But then, she points out, even Monroe didn’t always like to play Marilyn. “She knew how to turn it on or off, and she was able to get away with not being noticed.”

The problem for any actor playing Monroe therefore becomes clear. There is little footage that documents this “real” Marilyn, little to go on other than the interviews she performed towards the end of her life. In that sense, Thorburn has a certain freedom to improvise. “I don’t think there is any film of her real, which means I have to invent that, and that’s exciting as well because it means you have to bring your own self to it.”

She is keen not to “dishonour Marilyn”, while at the same time she is aware that the audience will be looking to see “a mixture of a real woman and the facade that she put on”. She points out that Signoret, in her autobiography, notes that in the whole of those months living alongside Monroe, she only saw her be “Marilyn” twice. Signoret also summed up Monroe’s predicament well: “Hordes of young girls never copied my hairdos or the way I talk or the way I dress. I have, therefore, never had to go through the stress of perpetuating an image that’s often the equivalent of one particular song that forever freezes a precise moment of one’s youth.” ‘

Read the interview in full at Herald Scotland

Marilyn and Simone

Dramatist Sue Glover talks to The List about her new play, Marilyn. Exploring the unusual friendship between Monroe and Simone Signoret (and the love affair that tore them apart), Marilyn opens at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, on February 17.

“They are as different as they are similar. I think Marilyn certainly envied a lot about Simone; how cultured she was, her vast circle of friends, her self-assurance and the fact she was a mother. She would have wanted all of that. Simone may also have been envious of Marilyn. Simone was only five years older than Marilyn but she was approaching middle-age and may have felt insecure and jealous of a younger woman. Interestingly they were both very independent but also both enthralled by their men. They both needed to be married and both of them endured a lot because of that.”

“Marilyn had lost a child during the filming of ‘Some Like It Hot’ the previous year. The marriage to Arthur Miller was ending and her unreliability at the time was notorious. I think this was the beginning of her losing it in all senses of the phrase. I also think in a way Signoret never recovered from what happened that summer. It was a huge moment in their lives.”