Sue Dunkley: The British Pop Artist Who Painted Marilyn and Yves

The British painter Sue Dunkley – whose subjects included Marilyn and Yves Montand – passed away on August 20, 2022, The Guardian reports.

“Wild, beautiful and dressed in Mary Quant, Dunkley, who has died aged 80, was liberated by the swinging times in which she came of age. Her brightly coloured pop-like figurative paintings, not dissimilar in style to those by Alex Katz and Pauline Boty, saw women in interiors and posing in bikinis, yet spoke of the female subjection to the male gaze with a melancholy absent in much pop painting of the period.

By the end of the 1960s, Dunkley had begun a series of unsettling paintings haunted by those victims of 20th-century celebrity Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe – for Dunkley, those subjects were ‘aesthetic shocks’ as much as human tragedies …She also began to draw still lifes, in which she felt the ending of her marriage to be present: they were ways of organising ‘the tensions of relationships.’

Dunkley was devoted to a practice she called ‘walking and working’. On trips to Andalucía, Turkey and France, where she owned a house, she would sleep outdoors and try to see the landscape anew … Despite her solitary journeys, Dunkley’s parties were legendary, and friends often spoke of her sense of humour.

Dunkley’s final series of work were pastel portraits, made in 2006 of her mother as she succumbed to dementia. Three years later, Dunkley was diagnosed with the same disease, and in 2016 she moved into a nearby care home. While sorting through 50 years of possessions, her daughter rediscovered those visceral works of the 60s and 70s, and decided to hold a retrospective in the house that Dunkley had once said ‘speaks to me and inspires me all the time.'”

Sue Dunkley in her London home

In a November 3, 2016 post for my former blog, ES Updates, I looked at Sue’s paintings of Marilyn in detail. “Marilyn inspired many within the Pop Art movement, including Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and Pauline Boty,” I wrote. “Now another British artist of this period has come to light, with a recent exhibition at her home in Islington, North London. Sue Dunkley produced at least two paintings based on images by photographers John Bryson and Bruce Davidson, and the private drama that unfolded between the Millers and the Montands during filming of Let’s Make Love.”

‘Marilyn, Yves and Simone’ (1974), after Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson’s image of the Millers and the Montands dining together at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1960

The exhibition was reviewed here by Guardian art critic Sean O’Hagan…

“This substantial series of Pop Art paintings on large canvas have recently been rediscovered in Dunkley’s London studio by her daughter and brother.The works in the series were produced between 1968 and 1972, and notably take as their subject the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the female body, and human relationships, often touched by violence and betrayal. A large number of pastel studies for these works and independent sketches have also been discovered, many of which explore intimacy, sexuality and the role of women in changing eras.

These works are often populated by numerous faces and figures, sometimes difficult to discern and placed in uneasy dialogue with one another. Dunkley herself often appears in the works, looking on or departing, merging the political and personal in both intimate and yet culturally significant works of art. These early works employ the bold and graphic language of Pop Art, referencing familiar media imagery and fashion photography. Recognisable images such as Ethel Kennedy’s screaming face and outstretched hand following Robert Kennedy’s assassination alongside images of Marilyn Monroe recur, as if ghosts on the edge of these significant events and moments in history. Dunkley returned to Monroe often, fascinated by her seemingly irreconcilable sexuality and vulnerability, the impossible expectations placed on her to be both child and sex symbol.”

Another painting of Marilyn and Yves, based on a publicity still for Let’s Make Love by LIFE photographer John Bryson