Thursday August 16, 2012
Salvatore Ferragamo Museum pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe
By IVY SOON
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence, Italy pays tribute to the icon.
THE lone American businessman sharing a table with us for dinner at the San Spirito Square in Florence, Italy paused just the slightest when we asked if he was a Marilyn Monroe fan.
“Everyone is a little in love with Marilyn Monroe, everyone thinks they know her,” he said, summing up the allure of Hollywood’s most famous blonde.
It doesn’t matter that it has been 50 years since her untimely death.
Monroe is still very much alive in the collective imagination, and the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence is paying her homage with an exhibition that revolves not just around her beauty and charisma, but also seeks to give a fresh interpretation of the actress’ life and personality.
The late Selvatore Ferragamo was known as the “shoemaker to the stars”, and Monroe was his most loyal customer. She owned 40 pairs of Ferragamo shoes and wore them in many of her famous scenes – from the rhinestone encrusted red heels in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to the white heels she stood in when her dress was blown up in The Seven Year Itch. The actress wore her Ferragamo pumps all the time, on and off the set.
After all, the shoemaker invented the stilettos that gave Monroe her distinctive mesmerising wiggle, especially for her.
“Although Ferragamo had never actually met the actress, he gathered from the shape of her foot that he was dealing with a complex personality, and he may even have come to certain conclusions based precisely on the shoes she chose: always the same model, simple but sexy, with a high heel ...,” wrote the exhibition’s curators Stefania Ricci and Sergio Risaliti in their notes on the Marilyn Monroe retrospective.
Ferragamo likened the movie star to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, and designed her shoes to accentuate her innate and intense physicality. Each pair featured an identical design of understated elegance – a pointed toe and four and half inch stiletto heel – emphasising the femininity of her famous sway and revealing much about her personal tastes.
Thirty of Monroe’s shoes were displayed at the exhibition – well-worn heels in similarly simple designs, mostly in neutral tones of blacks and ivories. The most glamorous pair of shoes was the one covered with red Swarovski rhineshones. The shoes all bore “Ferragamo’s Creations Florence Italy” labels, and were mostly acquired by the museum at international antique markets such as the Christie’s New York auction of Monroe’s personal property in 1999 or borrowed from private collectors.
The collection of her shoes offers an intimate glimpse of the movie icon, for the shoes had obviously been well-used. It was a tad surprising to find such a relatively sedate collection, but visitors to the museum saw a different side of Monroe from her personal wardrobe.
It was refreshing and insightful for most people are really only acquainted with her blonde bombshell persona.
One of the challenges the curators faced was in finding an original approach as “... everything, from fact to fiction, seemed to have already been said”.
But it was evident from the moment one stepped into the exhibition hall that the curators had succeeded in presenting a new look at Monroe.
In the museum housed in the basement of the medieval palace Palazzo Spini Feroni, in the cradle of the Renaissance that is the city of Florence, Monroe’s modern images are juxtaposed alongside 17th century Florentine artworks. The famous photograph of Monroe in a sweater on the beach taken by George Barris was superimposed on Sandro Botticeli’s painting The Birth of Venus in a multimedia display to illustrate how the actress was inspired by classical art and myth.
It was all the more stirring as the famous Boticelli masterpiece is displayed at the nearby Uffizi Gallery.
It was even more impressive because the curators had also gathered documented proof to trace how Monroe came to find affinity with – and embodied – muses from ancient paintings.
There was a typewritten account from French photographer Andre de Dienes of an argument he had with Monroe when he tried to persuade her to be portrayed “rising from the surf like a ‘goddess of beauty’.” Then a penniless struggling actress, Monroe stormed off in anger but that was the genesis of the poses she did for Barris on the beach years later.
In fact, the starting point of the exhibition was the famous naked pin-up of Monroe in Playboy in 1953. Her pose and languid sensuality is said to be reminiscent of the Penitent Magdalene by Francesco Furini, a 17th century Florentine painter.
These allusions to classical muses elevate Monroe somewhat from a post-war sex symbol with an overtly titillating image to a timeless erotic goddess of beauty in the Hollywood pantheon.
But it is really through photographs and films that the public got their measure of Monroe. The exhibit has hundreds of photographs of Monroe throughout her life, a collection of dresses and costumes, as well as her journals and jottings.
During the launch of the exhibition, visitors were greeted by ushers dressed in replicas of the famous billowing halter-neck ivory dress. But they were all tall skinny girls without the curves to fill the dress the way Monroe did nor could they project the playful sensuality that seemed so effortless with her.
A reproduction of that ivory dress was displayed at the exhibition, along with other costumes she wore in her famous roles that the curators had painstakingly scoured the world for. There was that pink silk evening dress that Monroe wore singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, as well as the tasselled black dress she wore in Some Like It Hot.
My favourite is the copy of a rhinestone-crusted nude evening gown, which was exhibited with a video showing Monroe wearing that gown singing Happy Birthday Mr President to John F. Kennedy in 1962.
The costumes were brought to life in the backdrop of a big screen playing the clips of Monroe inhabiting the dresses with all her sensuality.
It was the most crowded room during the exhibition launch as people stood transfixed and watched Monroe in her many roles. She had an intense aura in film, borne from her complexities – she had the voluptuous body of a seductress and the innocent face of the girl next door, and she delivered comedy as the dumb blonde with the wisdom of the traditional fool.
“She mastered a profound sense of irony and self-mockery, particularly with respect to the female image created by men and for men in classic Hollywood films, often reduced to a body, an object. In this way, she laid the groundwork for the birth of the modern woman, who is aware of a man’s desires and knows how to use them best to her advantage,” according to the exhibition notes.
Monroe fought hard to be recognised as a serious actress. She studied acting at the Actors Studio in New York which turned out the finest actors in the United States and fought constantly with studio bosses to be allowed to choose her own roles. She read widely, grew interested in poetry and art, and sought out the company of intellectuals of that time such as author Truman Copote and playwright Arthur Miller (whom she married).
Much has been written about the complex character Monroe was. She was fragile and wrecked with insecurities, but was also a strong ambitious actress who overcame great odds to reach the top of her profession.
The displays of her writings and memorabilia offered the most revealing look at Monroe’s will and determination. There were notebooks with Monroe’s handwritten jottings and reflections, as well as letters she had written. There were also lesser-known photographs of her in everyday life.
There was also the collection of her personal clothing and accessories that offer a glimpse of Monroe’s character away from the seductive screen goddess. Her clothes were mostly black and white, with little embellishments.
Monroe’s legend was sealed by her untimely death 50 years ago, and this event was represented by an installation at the exhibition. In a white space alluding to the time of her passing and the discovery of her body, the voice of Giorgio Bassani recited the Italian documentary La Rabbia (The Rage) by Pierpaolo Pasolini which was a commentary on what caused anguish in the world at that time.
There was also a 60s-style television set showing a short film made by Pasolini after Monroe’s death.
In this section are some of the most beautiful portraits of Monroe, shot by Bert Stern a few weeks before the actress’s death. She embodied beauty and innocence, and the images immortalised her legend as an enduring tragic beauty and innocence lost.
In the last interview she did with Life magazine journalist Richard Meryman before her death, she spoke of the uselessness of fame and the respect she had never been shown. Her parting words to Meryman was “Please don’t make me a joke”.
The Salvatore Ferragamo museum certainly took Monroe seriously, and the exhibition curators had paid her a magnificent tribute in their interpretation of her life and career. The exhibition catalogue, with essays and photographs of Monroe, is a comprehensive exploration of the actress’ persona.
The Marilyn Monroe exhibition is on at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, Florence, Italy till Jan 28 next year. For more information, visit museoferragamo.it/en/.