Beauty spot

What are you looking at? A pertinent question when you view Andy Warhol's Marilyn artwork. Deborah Riding investigates how this Pop artist got to grips with the cult of celebrity

One of the first sights to greet you as you enter the foyer of Tate Liverpool is this face of Marilyn Monroe repeated nine times in Andy Warhol's signature style. Iconic in every sense of the word, Warhol's images of Marilyn have come to signify his work and that of Pop Art generally, but have also become images synonymous with the star they portray. These images of Marilyn have become as widely familiar as the star herself and have been appropriated for commercial ventures worldwide. Product and production, depicted and depiction become indistinguishable as star, image and artist acquire mythical status.

The Sixties was a time of significant social and economic change in western society and the post-war domination of American culture became a focus for Pop artists working in this country as well as the US. The bold and brash culture being exported encapsulated everything that British artist Richard Hamilton identified as concerning Pop Art, "popular, transient, expendable, youthful, witty and glamorous". The influence of rock 'n' roll and Hollywood cinema, coupled with a flood of new consumer products and associated advertising, swept across Europe, and western culture became saturated with American imagery. Many artists began to incorporate references in their work to the icons of this culture. Students could discuss what elements of culture today were imported from the US in the Fifties and Sixties. You could look at Hollywood films from that era to highlight particular aspects of that culture and the lifestyle that Europe aspired to.

One of the concerns of Pop Art was to address the dislocation of fine art practice from real life and popular culture. In opposition to the introspective, abstract work of the Fifties, Pop Art directly engaged the public. By using recognisable images produced in familiar commercial styles, artists such as Andy Warhol made work that effaced the boundaries between art and life, and high and low culture, and was accessible to a wider public. Warhol demonstrated to the public how consumer culture was visible everywhere and shaping our lives. What similarities can students see between Warhol's work and advertising?

In 1962 Andy Warhol began a series of works following the theme of death and disaster. He used newspaper images of crashes, suicides, riots; images which were sensationalised through the media and overexposed to a de-sensitised audience. These works participated in the debates surrounding press intrusion and exploitation. Warhol was particularly interested in how media attention afforded ordinary people celebrity status. Even in desperate circumstances people were at least "famous for 15 minutes". In August of that year he made his first silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe only weeks after her tragic death at 36 from an overdose. He used a widely available publicity shot from the 1953 film Niagra; a photograph that epitomised her image as glamorous sex symbol. He went on to produce a further 50 or so photo-silkscreens all evolving from the same photograph immortalising her through one image. Ask students to think about how this is different from the way artists traditionally would go about painting a portrait.

Celebrity became a defining feature of much of Warhol's work. Publicity images, such as the one used of Marilyn, were widely available to a growing number of Hollywood fans. An avid collector of these photos himself, his work referenced the public's craving for celebrity images. Who are the cultural icons of our society? Who do we crave images of? You can see many of them in Tate Liverpool's exhibition "Pin-up: Glamour and Celebrity since the Sixties". Warhol often used images taken from the media which publicised private moments and emotions. Discuss this in the context of the debate surrounding paparazzi photography and privacy in the British press.

Warhol said: "If you want to know more about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

In his images of Marilyn, surface dominates. We recognise who she is but cannot move beyond that, which forces us to address our voyeuristic tendencies. Warhol repeats the image of Marilyn in the same way as he does a tin of soup, displaying her as a disposable commodity; Marilyn Monroe becomes a brand name like Coca-Cola. Displayed as a corporate creation her portrayal becomes a stylised design rather than a human likeness. Warhol exaggerates this formula and produces an image which is almost mask-like, applying blocks of garish colour which do not quite register with her facial features and which emphasise the feeling of falseness. She is reduced to signifiers of Marilyn: blonde hair, red lips, made-up eyes. This look, or design, shaped contemporary sexuality.

Talk about the purpose behind portraits generally. What kind of information are artists trying to convey and how do they do it? What is Andy Warhol trying to say about Marilyn Monroe?

It is interesting to compare this work with Pauline Boty's painting of Marilyn Monroe also in the "Pin-up" exhibition. (her painting of Marilyn uses a film still from Some Like it Hot as its source. It shows the actress as vulnerable and unbalanced in a very tight dress and high heels.) How does this female artist portray her differently from how Warhol does it?

Mass media formats informed the aesthetic of Pop Art not only through its references but also its production. Silkscreen was favoured by Pop artists because of its facility to reproduce photographs and its capacity for bold saturated blocks of colour that reflected the contemporary environment. It was also a commercial process that allowed artists to produce multiples of an image. Warhol even said: "It would be great if more people took up silk screens so that no one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else's." Do students think it's important to know who made a work?

Pop's imagery was borrowed from other sources, all of which were themselves mediated; adverts rather than products, publicity shots rather than people. Warhol's strategies of repetition and reproduction undermined conventional notions of art and the priority of the authorship and originality of the artist. Do students think it is cheating to use found images in an artwork?

"Marilyn" uses one mass-produced image to produce another, which in turn is appropriated and reproduced in the cultural sphere in which it originated; a cycle that perpetuates the myth of Marilyn Monroe as 20th century icon.

Deborah Riding is education curator, schools and colleges, at Tate Liverpool

Andy Warhol 1928-1987

American Pop artist most famous for his repetitive images of celebrities and consumer products in the 1960s. He began his working life as a graphic artist, becoming a successful commercial illustrator before turning to fine art. His New York studio, The Factory became as infamous for its parties as the work it produced. Always fascinated by celebrity he attained star status in his own right. When he was shot in 1968 he himself hit the headlines.


* Warhol, Heiner Bastian, London: Tate, 2001 (exhibition catalogue for the tate Modern show).Price: pound;29.99

* The Essential Andy Warhol, Ingrid Schnaffner, New York: Harry N Abrams, 1999. Price: pound;7.95

* Links to One Stop Warhol Shop, exploring his work and the context in which it was produced in an interactive way that encourages visitors to create their own interpretations.

* "Pin-up: Glamour and Celebrity Since the Sixties", is a display from the Tate Collection charting the relationship between art, glamour and celebrity throughout the past 40 years. The exhibition can be seen at Tate Liverpool until 19 January 2003.

Visit the Tate website to find out more information about Andy Warhol's Pin-up display and search the Collection database for work by other Pop artists.

For more information on schools events working with Pin-up contact Samantha Brewer (tel: 0151 702 7451) for a copy of the Schools and Colleges Newsletter.

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