Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd on Edward John Poynter

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

Edward John Poynter

Helen

1881
oil on canvas
Purchased 1968

When Marilyn Monroe did telephone interviews, journalists would sometimes ask, ‘So Marilyn, what do you have on?’, and she would answer, ‘The radio’. Marilyn and Helen are two femmes fatales, millennia apart. In this portrait, Helen wavers between guileless good girl and wily woman. Clasping her robes, she is both chaste and sensual – part Norma Jeane and part bombshell. One of my favourite poets, Anne Carson, sees the similarity between Marilyn and Helen: ‘They had the same power – to stick in the throat of Desire’. It’s common to ask whether Helen’s beauty brought down Troy. But I want to know, did Helen turn around and see the flames behind her? In Homer’s Iliad, Helen weaves a vast tapestry in her chamber. Minute by minute, she depicts the battle outside her window. Helen was an artist in lockdown. As Carson puts it, she ‘livestreamed the war’.

Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd is curator of film. Her favourite Marilyn movie is Some like it hot

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