Marlene Dietrich photographed by William Walling Jr. in 1932. Photo courtesy of International Center of Photography.

Play the Part: Marlene Dietrich
September 29, 2023–January 8, 2024
International Center of Photography
79 Essex Street
New York, NY, 10002

The International Center of Photography has announced its Fall 2023 exhibition schedule, featuring Play the Part: Marlene Dietrich and two other concurrent exhibitions. Play the Part: Marlene Dietrich will be on view from September 29th, 2023 to January 8th, 2024 in ICP’s Lower East Side museum. 

Play the Part: Marlene Dietrich features 150 photographs taken between 1906 and 1978 in order to examine the multifaceted evolution of Dietrich’s public persona. The exhibition includes works by well-known artists like Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Edward Steichen, as well as photographers with whom Dietrich collaborated repeatedly including George Hurrell, Eugene Robert Richee, and William Walling Jr. Pierre Passebon assembled the exhibition, and this showing at ICP will mark the first time it is shown in the United States. 

A young Marlene Dietrich. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dietrich is best known for her role in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), the first feature-length German talkie. Von Sternberg’s film is a comedy-drama musical based on Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel Professor Unrat. It depicts a respected professor’s fall and transformation into a cabaret clown plagued by madness. Dietrich plays Lola-Lola, the headliner of the eponymous cabaret set in Weimar, Germany, who is responsible for the professor’s fall. Lola-Lola is viewed as Dietrich’s breakout role, leading von Sternberg to take credit for discovering her.  

Dietrich is also known for her political participation. She was born in Berlin in 1901 and emigrated to the United States in 1930. Dietrich vocally opposed the Nazi regime and eventually renounced her German citizenship. During World War II in December 1941, Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to participate in selling war bonds. She toured the United States from January 1942 to September 1943, and also toured with the United Services Organization in 1944 and 1945. During these tours, she spoke to troops and performed, making her political opinions known. 

Dietrich’s efforts did not go unnoticed.  Two United States generals nominated her for the Medal of Freedom, leading her to receive the award in 1947. According to a November 1947 issue of The New York Times, Dietrich received the award due to her “extraordinary record entertaining troops overseas during the war.”

Marlene Dietrich’s grave at the Friedhof Schöneberg III Cemetery in Berlin, Germany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dietrich passed away in May 1992 due to kidney failure at her apartment in Paris. As a bisexual woman who frequently challenged gender and sexual norms on screen and off, Dietrich is seen as a core feminist and queer figure both during her time and today. 

ICP Executive Director David E. Little commented on the museum’s fall 2023 schedule: “These three distinct exhibitions emphasize the diversity of imagemaking that ICP continues to champion, presenting in one season a wide range of artistic practices and forms of photography including experimental processes, documentary, commercial, editorial, and vernacular. Together, they celebrate many strands of photography throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Discussion of Dietrich’s life and career through this exhibition will showcase a female public figure who was not afraid to speak her mind and who impacted real change. Play the Part: Marlene Dietrich will be on view at ICP every day except Tuesdays from 11am to 7pm, and until 9pm on Thursdays. 

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