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Interior with Marilyn Monroe is a medium-size black and white photograph by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the centre of the scene, a topless young man stands in front of a table with his right arm resting on an adjacent countertop and his hip thrust sideways in a languid pose. He is heavily bejewelled, with a thick ornamental band on his right forearm and a narrow headdress wrapped horizontally around his dark hair and forehead. A jewelled cape flows down his back, and further jewels, attached to the cape at the neck, cover his bare chest. On the table in the foreground are several ornaments and neckties, and to the right of this a large necklace sits upon a stand, while on the counter to the left of the table sit a bag, a bottle and an unidentifiable image with a large wheel hanging on the wall above it. In the background of the composition are displayed further pieces of jewellery, and directly to the right of the man, but in the background, is a framed poster of the American actress, model and singer Marilyn Monroe. The image is sharply focused upon the man, who turns so that his face is angled towards the right side of the composition at a point level with Monroe’s head, and most of the rest of the image is not in focus.
Although the precise year and location in which Cartier-Bresson took this photograph are not known, it is thought that it was made between 1960 and 1969, a period during which the photographer travelled around Mexico, Cuba, Japan and India. Cartier-Bresson took many photographs while on these trips and sent the negatives back to his studio in Paris, where they were developed by his assistants. The title, Interior with Marilyn Monroe, indicates the importance of the poster within the composition, suggesting this to be a double portrait of the live sitter and the film star.
The rich detail of the lavish setting and the stylised pose of the man in Interior with Marilyn Monroe are reminiscent of a film set or a star’s dressing room. Historians such as Michel Frizot have discussed the influence of film on photographers during the 1930s and 1940s, and during this time Cartier-Bresson worked as an assistant director on the French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s La vie est à nous (1936), Une partie de campagne (1936) and La Règle du Jeu (1939) and directed his own documentary films including Victoire de la vie (1937) and Le Retour (1944–5). (See Michel Frizot, ‘Unpredictable Glances: Photography Lessons from a Scrapbook’ in Henri Cartier-Bresson, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Scrapbook: Photographs 1932–1946, pp.53–5.) In Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment he discussed the impact of the film industry on his practice, stating that
From some of the great films, I learned to look, and to see. ‘Mysteries of New York’, with Pearl White; the great films of D.W. Griffith – ‘Broken Blossoms’ the first films of Stroheim – ‘Greed’; Eisenstein’s ‘Potemkin’; and Dreyer’s ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ – these were some of the things that impressed me deeply.
(Cartier-Bresson 1952, p.1.)
Furthermore, in the same text Cartier-Bresson referred to his photographs as a type of ‘picture-story’ that ‘involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event … and to communicate impressions’ (Cartier-Bresson 1952, p.3). Interior with Marilyn Monroe could be seen to present a possible narrative for the viewer to decipher, without giving any clear indication of its subject beyond the ‘impressions’ provided by the setting. However, the prominent position and lighting of Monroe’s image in the interior suggest the man’s admiration for the star, and his decorated body implies that he has modelled himself on Monroe’s famously glamorous appearance.
As an image depicting a figure posing in an indoor setting, Interior with Marilyn Monroe is less typical of the candid street photography for which Cartier-Bresson was well known (see, for instance, Waiting in Trafalgar Square for the Coronation Parade of King George VI 1937, Tate P13402). In 1947, along with Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Roger and William Vandivert, Cartier-Bresson set up the photojournalist agency Magnum and travelled the world during the 1950s and 1960s on assignments for various news outlets.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, Paris and New York 1952, pp.1–3.
Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2010.
Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson: Here and Now, London and New York 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.