Andy Warhol’s ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ will be auctioned at Christie’s New York on May 9 – with a $200 million estimate. In a blog post for The Conversation, Harriet Fletcher – associate professor of English and History at Lancaster University – looks at the cultural and political background to Warhol’s masterpiece. (You can read my previous posts on ‘Shot Blue Marilyn,’ discussing its artistry and financial status, here.)
“According to Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman for 20th and 21st century art, Warhol’s Marilyn is ‘the absolute pinnacle of American Pop and the promise of the American dream, encapsulating optimism, fragility, celebrity and iconography all at once’.
Hollywood stars were great sources of inspiration for the Pop art movement. Monroe was a recurring motif, not only in the work of Warhol but in the work of his contemporaries, including James Rosenquist’s Marilyn Monroe, I and Pauline Boty’s Colour Her Gone and The Only Blonde in the World.
While Rotter’s statement may be true to some extent, there is also a sinister edge to the Marilyns because many were produced in the months following her unexpected death in 1962.
On the surface, the works may look like a tribute to a much-loved icon, but themes of death, decay and even violence lurk within these canvases. Clues can often be found in the production techniques … Warhol’s The Shot Marilyns consists of four canvases shot through the forehead with a single bullet. In this, the creation of Warhol’s art is as important as the artwork itself.
At a glance, the surface level glamour of Warhol’s Marilyn immortalises the actress as a blonde bombshell of Hollywood’s bygone era. It is easy to forget the tragedy behind the image, yet part of our enduring fascination with Marilyn Monroe is her tragedy.
The death at the heart of Warhol’s Marilyns is not just rooted in grief but is also a reflection of the wider cultural landscape. The 1960s was a remarkably dark period in 20th century American history. A brief look at the context in which Warhol was producing these images reveals a decade plagued by a series of traumatic events.
This image of the 1960s is echoed by the postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson, who describes the decade as a ‘virtual nightmare’ and a ‘historical and countercultural bad trip’. Stars like Monroe were not as flawless as they may appear in Warhol’s portraits, but were ‘notorious cases of burnout and self-destruction’.
Warhol understood this more than anyone. His Death and Disaster series explores the spectacle of death in America and affirms the 1960s as a time of anxiety, terror and crisis. The series consists of a vast collection of silkscreened photographs of real-life disasters including car crashes, suicides and executions taken from newspapers and police archives. Famous deaths are also a central theme of the series, including portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy – all of whom are associated with significant deaths or near-death experiences.
Death and Disaster came about in 1962 when Warhol’s collaborator Henry Geldzahler suggested that the artist should stop producing ‘affirmation of life’ and instead explore the dark side of American culture: ‘Maybe everything isn’t always so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening.'”