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The intertwining lives of Pauline Boty and Marilyn Monroe

How the artist and the Hollywood film star navigated their way through the arts industry

Following Marilyn Monroe’s very public death in 1962, she became a subject for several Pop artists’ work – we all know the Warhol prints, but the work of British artist Pauline Boty remains overlooked. Both Boty and Monroe were bright, innovative women who struggled to be taken seriously in their industries, and Boty’s Colour Her Gone (1962) and The Only Blonde in the World (1963) offer an empathetic view of the actress that is rarely seen.

Boty was born in South London in 1938 and at the age of 18, won a scholarship to Wimbledon College of Arts, where she specialised in stained glass. According to notes in Nell Dunne’s Talking to Women (1965), Boty had intended to study painting at the Royal College of Art but was told that women were rarely accepted – undeterred, she continued to paint and by the early 1960s had a foothold in the London arts scene. Boty exhibited in several important Pop Art group shows and had a solo exhibition at the Grabowski Gallery in 1963, but her work all but disappeared from view following her death in 1966.

Art historian Sue Tate puts this down to a curious catch-22: Boty seemed to be too feminine for Pop Art and too Pop for second-wave feminism. As a young woman, Boty was both the subject of and primary audience for contemporary mass culture; advertisements often boiled down to offering products for women’s consumption, and offering women’s bodies for male consumption. This distinctly female experience of popular culture prevented Boty from taking the same cool, detached stance that defined the Pop of her male contemporaries.

Boty lived in the heart of sixties London: she danced on the rock/pop TV show Ready Steady Go!, hosted a regular radio programme, introduced Bob Dylan to London, appeared in Alfie, and inspired Julie Christie’s role in the 1965 film Darling. Her beauty and engagement in popular culture hindered her validity as a serious artist in the eyes of both art critics and second-wave feminist scholars – in BBC’s Pop Goes the Easel (1962), she was acknowledged as a beautiful ‘It Girl’ who painted, rather than an artist in her own right, and she was overlooked in feminist academia.

Her work both critiques and celebrates pop culture, especially in relation to Boty’s sexuality: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1963) takes its name from the theme tune for Ready Steady Go! and features the show’s presenter, Cathy Magowan, with her head thrown back in pleasure against the backdrop of a large, swirling rose, resembling labia and pubic hair. In case we needed further clarification, Boty adds in half of a sign which reads ‘Oh, for a fu…”.

She frequently used roses as reference to female sexuality: a huge, unnaturally wide rose (the shape of a vulva and spread legs, or bum cheeks?) crowns the head of New Wave actor Jean-Paul Belmondo in With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo (1962). At the centre of It’s a Man’s World I (1965), a throbbing red rose sits in stark contrast to the blue-toned portraits and clippings of the famous men surrounding it.

Celebrities appeared often in Boty’s work and it’s clear that she viewed them through a fan’s eyes as well as an artist’s. In a 1963 interview with Men Only, she states that:

“Film stars… are the 20th century gods and goddesses. People need them, and the myths that surround them, because their own lives are enriched by them. Pop Art colours those myths” – Pauline Boty

Her paintings imply an affinity for Monroe as a nuanced symbol of female sexuality, rather than the shorthand for glamour, celebrity, and vapid materialism that Monroe is usually reduced to – Monroe appears before us as a much more human and natural-looking woman than the distorted, fragmented, or billboard-ready counterparts from de Kooning, Warhol, Hamilton, Rotella, and Rosenquist.

In The Immortal Marilyn: The Depiction of an Icon, De Vito and Tropea argue that Monroe has become a greater ‘myth figure’ than any other comparable celebrity. The complexities of her life, persona, and stardom inspired “an astonishingly wide range of creative individuals”, and the authors suggest that her role as muse to artists, writers and thinkers is “perhaps (her) most immortal.”

When Monroe died in 1962 the media coverage went from hating her to fetishising her death: papers relished the scene of her being found nude in bed, and ran headlines about Monroe lying “unclaimed” in a morgue. The neighbouring crypt was bought by Hugh Hefner (the same Hefner who bought and published images of Monroe in Playboy, nearly ruining her career), and the owner of the crypt above her requested that his future coffin be placed upside down to face hers.

Amid this, Warhol began his first Marilyn prints, alongside working on the 129 Die in Jet! series – depicting prints of the front page of a newspaper announcing a plane crash. Both had their roots in death, spectacle, and media, but also in repetition and ubiquity – the overexposure of celebrity or horror leading to desensitisation.

Richard Hamilton’s My Marilyn (1965-6) presents a selection of photographs taken by George Barris shortly before her death, with markings and retouching notes by Monroe. Monroe’s markings – showcased by Hamilton – highlight her process and the curation of her image.

Hamilton’s Monroe was born out of an intellectual interest in Monroe’s self-invention, and Warhol’s from an obsession with spectacle. Mimmo Rotella and James Rosenquist, too, focused on her stardom and consumerism. Monroe’s death coincided with the growth of Pop Art, and her sudden death perhaps provided the perfect ‘sticky end’ for a narrative on the dangers of pop culture, so it may be no surprise that artists didn’t feel the need to explore Monroe as an individual.

Boty’s Colour Her Gone (1962) and The Only Blonde in the World (1963) make no claims to know or reveal Monroe as an individual, but make us more aware of the distance between ourselves and Monroe. In both paintings, Monroe is just about cut off behind side panels, isolating or perhaps shielding her. The Only Blonde in the World uses a paparazzi shot as reference rather than a more familiar, engaging image where Monroe is playing to camera – in photoshoots or on film, Monroe appears as either a goddess or vulnerable and childlike, but, as well as reminding us of the media’s presence in her life, the paparazzi shot shows Monroe as human rather than as an icon.

Boty is said to have identified deeply with Monroe, and interviews between Tate and Boty’s friends recall Boty’s performances as Monroe in RCA student reviews. She can also be seen adopting Monroe-esque poses in both her modelling work and for more casual shoots in her studio. Such photographs also provide the only documentation of several lost artworks – whilst Boty’s paintings and Aston’s photographs were in the care of different owners, it speaks volumes that some work is only preserved thanks to her posing in front of them.

In 1993, curator David Alan Mellor found Boty’s paintings on her brother’s farm, restored them and displayed them in his Barbican show of the same year, The sixties art scene in London. Interest peaked by Mellor’s show and the Royal Academy’s poor representation for female Pop artists in their 1991 retrospective, art historian Sue Tate began research on Boty in the early 1990s. Much of what is known publicly about Boty is thanks to her subsequent work, and without her Boty would likely have remained unknown.

Boty’s and Monroe’s trajectory represent two sides of the same coin: their drive and charisma helped them to access London’s art industry and Hollywood’s film industry respectively, but both had their talent, work, and ideas overshadowed thanks to a focus on their sexual appeal. The nature of Hollywood meant that Monroe’s star could thrive despite – or more accurately, due to – her being dismissed as a serious actress, but the sexism of the industry still caused her great harm. Meanwhile sexism in London’s art industry meant that Boty was unable to gain lasting respect in the art industry, whilst looking and behaving like an ‘It Girl’.

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