Sunday, June 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: John Lennon: The Collected Artwork


The first things that come to mind for almost anyone in the world when you ask them why John Lennon is famous are most likely the two words "Beatles" and "music." While these are certainly true and these two words describe his most meaningful and lasting contributions to our culture (the word "music" also encompassing his post-Beatles work), he always thought of himself first and foremost as an artist. Now, whether or not this was just his way of being the iconoclast he always was is open for debate: in his own words, music was just a way for him to make money, while "art always came first." Regardless, art was a hugely important part of his life from childhood to his dying day. We all know he published two books of his fantastical and unique wordplay and drawings, 1964's In His Own Write and 1965's A Spainard in the Works (two books which I've read several times and greatly enjoy), but from his youngest days John produced a large volume of drawings. Some of them were displayed in his infamous exhibit "Bag One" in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with the accompanying police raid on the grounds of obscenity occurring on the second day), but the majority were done mostly for his own peace of mind and enjoyment.

***special thanks to Samantha at Insight Editions for sending me a copy of the book to review!***



In John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, Scott Gutterman has organized and curated a collection of John's drawing and grouped them into distinct chapters which place them in their proper context during the various periods of John's life. These range from his early childhood and pre-music years to his Beatles years, as well as chapters breaking his art into sections pertaining to his relationship with Yoko, his home life during the 1970s, and the years he, Yoko, and Sean traveled to Japan where John learned the Japanese sumi ink drawing technique and tried to learn the Japanese language as well. One thing that is evident throughout the entire book is that John was a very talented artist whose range spread across a variety of styles and techniques. Included in this book are examples of his work ranging from rough sketches and doodles that are almost of stick-figure simplicity to very realistic, detailed drawings, with many other styles in between. While at first glance some people might look at the drawings and find many of them to be little more than scribbles and doodles, it becomes clearer upon really studying them that there was a method to his madness, so to speak.  One of the biggest criticisms levied at John and Yoko was that they self-importantly chronicled every bit of their lives on record and film in the narcissistic belief that the public wanted to know all about it. John did much the same with his drawings, the difference being that he kept almost all of them to himself.



Starting off with his childhood drawings, the book shows many examples of the highly detailed and imaginative drawings of John's youth. Done mainly in pencil, many of them colored in by John after drawing them, the subject matter ranges from typical young boy fare like football (soccer for my fellow Americans) to battles between knights and warriors (the clashes between the Normans and Saxons from Ivanhoe were a popular source for the young Lennon). Even at this early age it was evident he was quite talented. The drawings encompassing the 1960s and the Beatles years are mainly drawn from his two books, both of which I own and have read numerous times; thus, I'd seen them all before. However, when stripped of the accompanying writings of the original books, the pictures and their humor hold up surprisingly well on their own. Moving on to the art he made from when he first started dating Yoko in 1968 to the last days of his life in 1980, the subject matter is more broad. Many of the drawings focus on his marriage to Yoko with all of its ups and downs. There is the infatuation phase of 1968-70 where John draws numerous pictures of them hugging, kissing, their faces merging into one, and a series of logos where the letters of their names are intertwined in a crossword puzzle-like fashion. This last one in particular was interesting... it was quite a surprise to see that a 28-year old famous Beatle was drawing these logos the way lovesick high school kids used to draw them on their book covers like we did in my school days. There are also several pictures depicting the bad times, including when they were separated during John's 18-month "Lost Weekend" of 1973-75.  He drew many pictures throughout his life musing on his fame and what it all meant, as well as his enjoyment of the simple pleasures of city living in New York like walking down the street with Sean and Yoko, passing colorful characters, flying kites in the park...it shows John's contentment with his life and that, at the same time, he was a keen observer of the hustle and bustle going on around him. Many of his drawings are quite realistic and detailed while others are a bit more abstract and consist of little more than scribbled lines, yet somehow when placed together, they work. Perhaps the most interesting section for me was the chapter devoted to the work inspired by his immersion in Japanese culture during the many trips he and Yoko made to visit her family in Japan. John was intrigued with the sumi style of Japanese drawing and created several pieces using this style. In addition, he was trying to learn Japanese and incorporated many of the language's characters and phrases into his work. Some of them were done in a humorous way while others are attempts at learning how to speak and write it properly that wouldn't be out of place in a schoolkid's textbook. For instance, there is a series of drawings he made of Japanese faces making different facial expressions, each labeled with the appropriate descriptor: sweet, salty, bitter, and so on. It's fascinating to think that this world-famous musician was struggling to learn a new language just like the rest of us would...in a sense, his artwork humanizes him and plants his feet more solidly on the ground. I like to think that that's one of the main reasons John remained so dedicated to his craft, even as a hobby, throughout his life.



There are a few of things that are slightly lacking with the book which I'll go through one at a time. The first and most obvious one is that there is a lot of blank and/or wasted space. Each of John's drawings is reproduced quite beautifully on the high quality paper of the book, but there are far too many pages that are left blank opposite one of the drawings, or are filled with a portions of his handwritten song lyrics (many of which are to songs that have nothing to do with either the year or theme of the adjacent drawings). It seems a shame that so much page real estate was wasted in this way when it could have been utilized to include even more art. My second criticism concerns the accompanying text that precedes each chapter. Gutterman does a nice job explaining the themes and messages of each of John's drawings and placing them in the proper context as far as what was happening in his life at the time he created each of them. However, if you knew nothing of John Lennon or the Beatles before reading this book, you would think John was a single guy up until 1968 when he fell in love with Yoko before they got married in 1969, and you would think John had one and only one son, Sean, born in 1975. Obviously, as any Beatles and Lennon fan knows, this isn't the case as John was married to the late Cynthia (Powell) Lennon from 1962-68 and she is the mother of his oldest son Julian (born 1963). It's been a complaint of many Beatles fans, as well as Cynthia and Julian themselves, that they have been all but written out of John's life by Yoko and many Lennon fans and scholars, and this book is a prime example of that unfortunate phenomenon occurring yet again. There is but one mention of Julian, at the very end of the book, and no mention of Cynthia, which is glaring (at least to me) since many of his earlier drawings (including all of them coming from his two books) were done during his marriage to her. In fact, if one has also read the John Lennon Letters, you'd see that there wer many intricate or whimsical drawings he made during his early twenties that were done specifically for Cynthia. Really, my issue is just that this very real and vital part of John's life and creative process wasn't given the due it deserves. I realize this is par for the course with how Yoko has handled John's estate and his image since his death, but just because she engages in historical revisionism doesn't make it true. And before anyone says anything, I am not being "anti-Yoko" in saying this...more I'm being "pro-facts" than anything else!



Those complaints of mine aside, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a wonderful book that will be very enjoyable to anyone who is a serious Beatles and Lennon fan;.if you happen to be an art lover, all the better but I don't think that's necessary in order to get a real appreciation for the meaning of John's art. As the John Lennon Letters has done, in presenting his artwork this book helps to humanize and demystify John Lennon. Stripped of the protective shell that was his celebrity, the real man emerges and we get a chance to understand who he was and how he saw the world around him. I'd like to think that were he still alive, John would be very satisfied all these years later people are still as interested in his art as they are his music. For that reality, this book makes a significant contribution.


MY RATING: 8/10



10 comments:

  1. I am an art lover, but I'd have to sample the book in hand before buying. John's stuff is a bit too sketchy for my taste sometimes, and a lot of it is just too simple--along the lines of what perhaps a high school student might do. I find some of Paul McCartney's work more interesting--at least from the little of both that I have seen. John, had he lived, might have gone on to develop his visual artwork even more since he was living in NYC. He would have had the ways and means to do that. I assume as he got older he still would have pursued music too. Yoko's art can be interesting too, but she dabbles a bit too much in the avant-garde for most of my taste, but she has interesting ideas.

    Another musician that is a good visual artist is Joni Mitchell. I'm always surprised that she was so good at music and visual art. Must have been immensely satisfying.

    If you enjoy Neil Young, I found a limited streamer of his new album soon to be released called The Monsanto Years. Somehow I don't think the Monsanto corp. would be happy about it, but Neil always spoke his mind as many musicians do: http://classicrock961.com/neil-young-monsanto-years-listen/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know what you mean about John's stuff...some of it is quite sloppy and seems dashed off. He was also quite talented, though...several of the drawings in this book are pretty detailed and show that had he put a bit more time and effort into it, he could really produce some nice stuff. That was what he was like, though, and not just with art but with music: he wasn't a perfectionist. He liked to capture the moment and move on...hence he hated doing too many takes of a song, and when you're working with a perfectionist like McCartney, that's bound to cause issues (and it did, as we all know!).

      It's funny, so many musicians who also dabble in art. As you said, a lot of Paul's stuff is quite good. I know Joni, like you mentioned, is good as well. Dylan is also a painter and I know Clapton, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend also went to art college. One of my favorites, both as a musician and artist, is Graham Coxon...very weird style but it suits him (and that goes for both his excellent guitar playing as well as his art).

      Delete
  2. Might as well throw Daniel Johnston as musician-visual artist mix too. His songs and art reflect each other in ways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Who's he? Never heard of him...is he from a band I might have heard of?

      Delete
  3. No, actually a small independent musician from Austin, though I forget where he's originally from I think around Ohio or thereabouts. There's a good DVD on him and his music called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I guess you might say he's an outsider artist. His songs though crude, uses a lot of internal rhyme to them, he's very good at that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting....I'll check his stuff out! I'd definitely heard the name but didn't know anything about him. Man, so many good musicians come out of Austin (including one of my favorite bands, Trail of Dead)

      Delete
  4. have always had a soft spot for Lennon. the first celeb in my book to openly be all kinds of person in one.
    was quite an experience to stand @ the strawberry fields mosaic in central park & he really did have so much more to come.
    love his sketches

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian, I totally agree on John...I never met the guy and I was barely a year old when he was killed, but I miss him dearly (if that makes sense?). I've been to NYC but never up to the Dakota or the Strawberry Fields memorial...must get there next time I go to the city!

      Delete
  5. And Syd Barret also... as musician and visual artist :)
    Great blog , anyways.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very true, Syd was a talented (if not troubled) guy in both of those fields. Paul McCartney is also a quite talented artist in addition to his musical genius.

      Thanks for the compliment, too! :)

      Delete