Marilyn Monroe wasn't a person - she was a persona.
Behind that persona was Norma Jean Baker, the brunette ingenue who stared out from those wild blue eyes and drove the vivacious, bleached-blonde ideal she came to be known as to great heights and wound up captivating an entire nation - and then the world - with her flirtatious, sex-kitten charisma and playful innocence.
The exhibition that opens at the Jepson Center on April 4, "Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon," takes a dual view of this quintessential American paragon of Hollywood's golden age. On the one hand, the exhibition is very much a celebration - as the title clearly states - featuring a wealth of famous photographs from the starlet's heyday, including the now infamous Playboy images (strikingly tame by today's standards), and the photo that was said to be her personal favorite, showing her reclined in bed with a flower on her chest.
On the other hand, the second half of the exhibition features work by various contemporary artists that use Marilyn's image as a sort of meditation on the way her mystique has endured across cultures and generations since her death. These include Andy Warhol's famous screenprints, various abstract drawings, photos and other works of art examining or inspired by Marilyn the icon.
What's great about a show like this - and about Marilyn herself - is that you can view it simply as an entertaining display of beauty, glamour and star power that sweeps away all other thoughts (and that it does), but you can also peel back the layers, if you're so inclined, and ponder the candor and vulnerability underneath all those smiles.
It's a comedy, a tragedy and a pageant all wrapped up in one, and you can view it from whatever angle you wish.
"Our motivation was really to present something that's fresh for Savannah and something that has an accessibility to broad audiences," explains Telfair's director and CEO, Lisa Grove. "It felt like a way for us to show some really interesting art made by artists of the last 50 years from all around the world, but also celebrate something that's uniquely American in terms of celebrity status and this idea of celebrities in the media and our obsession with them, which has, if anything, only grown."
And though Grove admits there may be bittersweet opportunities for reflection in the show if that's what the viewer brings to it, she is quick to point out that this exhibition is meant to be about celebration, not sadness.
"What's fun about this exhibition is that it's the perfect show to present here at the Jepson Center for spring and summer because it has a sense of playfulness to it and pop culture that felt very different than what we had before, 'Spanish Sojourns,' which was a much more serious exhibition. This show is more fun and should appeal to a lot of people."
In that festive spirit, the opening night reception and party at 6 p.m. April 3 will include a live band, photo ops with a Marilyn look-alike, food, cash bar and a brief talk by Grove about Marilyn as muse and how she became such an inspiration for so many other artists and creatives even after her untimely death. And in a bit of fortuitous synchronicity, the Kirk Varnedoe Collection exhibition will also be on view during the run of the Marilyn show.
The Varnedoe Collection includes work from many modern masters such as Chuck Close, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, many of whom were Monroe's contemporaries and working during her lifetime. It's the perfect complement to the Marilyn show, and though Grove says she'd love to take credit for planning the intersection of the two exhibitions, it was more of a happy accident than anything.
But that's what discovery is all about and "Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon" provides many layers of discovery for viewers young and old.