You know that feeling when you’re Marilyn Monroe and you’re famous and the paparazzi are chasing you and you have to really hustle?
Yeah, me either, but it looks like the worst.
The work “Marilyn Pursued by Death,” painted by Rosalyn Drexler in 1963, evokes exactly that feeling. The haunting piece depicts Marilyn Monroe, fleeing towards the bottom right corner of the composition, her face tense behind her signature shades. Just behind her is the figure of a man, mid-stride, clearly in hot pursuit of the blonde starlet. Though Marilyn leaps forward on her left foot as the man lands heavily upon his right, sneaker-clad heel, the corresponding black-and-white ensembles of the pair create an uncanny echoing between the two figures, their matching black shades staring out along a parallel plane. An eerie red glow surrounds their combined shapes, punctuating the flat monochrome of the painting and emphasizing the alarm of the two figures.
Upon first glance, many viewers assume that the man chasing Marilyn is a paparazzi or a crazed fan. The title compounds this impression, reminding us that Marilyn was, ultimately, a victim of Hollywood’s spotlight. If you look at the photograph that the painting was based on, however, it becomes clear that the man is actually Marilyn’s bodyguard, bringing up the rear as she hurries away from the pressing hordes of fans and acolytes.
The ambiguity of the male figure – of “Death” – may be the most poignant feature of Drexler’s painting. In the end, what drove Marilyn to her death? Was it someone who wished her harm, someone her bodyguard would have protected her from? Or did Marilyn perish from the ceaseless, overwhelming, and utterly all-encompassing adoration of the public she had so carefully cultivated? Who was helping, and who was hurting?