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Missouri exhibit proves todays celebs can look to past idols for hints about fame
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    KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Long before Andy Warhol predicted that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, Sojourner Truth played a bit part in controlling her image and launching the current appetite for photos of celebrities.
    ‘‘Fame and photography really take root in the 19th century,’’ said Jane Aspinwall, assistant curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. ‘‘People in the 19th century were just as interested in celebrities and collecting celebrity portraiture as we are today.’’
    ‘‘In the Public Eye: Photography and Fame,’’ an exhibit of photographs, is on display in the museum’s new Bloch Building through June 15. It is made up of about 50 photographs from the Nelson-Atkins’ private collection and highlights the strange journey famous people and their audiences embarked on more than a century ago.
    The show includes images — iconic and lesser known — of celebrities from a variety of fields: actors Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Meryl Streep, slugger Babe Ruth, artists Rene Magritte and Constantin Brancusi. Among the photographers are Edward Steichen, Annie Leibovitz and Irving Penn.
    Arranged chronologically, the exhibit begins with baseball-card sized photos of Truth, who sold the photos of herself in the late 1800s to pay for her work helping freed slaves.
    ‘‘I sell the shadow to support the substance,’’ is the refrain on the sepia-tinged shots of Truth.
    Also included is a photo of French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who Aspinwall calls ‘‘Madonna-like’’ in her showmanship. Bernhardt, one of the first celebrities to have photographers pay to take her photo, is shown in a silk suit that created something of a scandal in the 1890s because it was a little too tight and a little too masculine.
    There is also a vampy, familiar shot of Marilyn Monroe in a clinging white dress. But that photo is shown next to a lesser known shot of the star by Henri Cartier-Bresson. In that image, Monroe is seated at a store looking wan and aloof while admirers gawk at her from behind. Celebrity at what cost, it seems to say.
    No show about celebrity or fame would be complete without Warhol, whose fulfilling prophecy doesn’t seem so implausible thanks to YouTube and reality television, said April Watson, associate curator.
    After all, who today doesn’t remember the photograph of Lindsay Lohan tippling from a champagne bottle on a night out after rehab release, or Britney Spears famously shaving her head?
    Warhol’s four-panel of an aging Lana Turner is alongside two other multi-panel photos. One is a 64-shot repetition of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant from the 1860s and the other a contact sheet of a youngish Richard Nixon striking several poses.
    ‘‘The idea is different,’’ Watson said of the combination of the Warhol with those of Grant and Nixon. ‘‘But the visual ... you can’t get away from the visual similarities.’’
    The show ends with photos of artists.
    There is Arnold Newman’s 1954 photo of Pablo Picasso, his hand as expressive as his face; sculptor Brancusi at work in his studio on something truly beautiful, and finally, a cynical nod to the celebrity photo with a shot of artist Piet Mondrian.
    Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 1999 photo says, ‘‘Go ahead and look. But do you know what you’re seeing?’’
    Sugimoto’s photo is of a wax figure of Mondrian. A fine wax figure, but wax after all.

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