Music For The Eyes
John Lennon's art still conjures images of the '60s--30 years later.
Thursday, February 11, 1999
In the long and turbulent history of the Beatles much has been said and written about their music and other creative endeavors. And probably none of the other bandmates received more scrutiny than their spiritual leader, John Lennon. In addition to writing most of the Beatles'' lyrics, Lennon in later years wrote and illustrated three books, acted, and created several hundred sketches and paintings.
Lennon always said his first love was art. Before forming the most famous pop group in music, Lennon attended the well-regarded Liverpool Art Institute for three years. Soon after leaving, the band''s music took off and his life was consumed by fame until he was shot to death in 1980.
In the late ''60s, he met avant-garde Japanese artist Yoko Ono and they married in 1969. The much-publicized wedding and honeymoon--a large part of which involved a Bed-In for peace held in their Paris hotel room--inspired Lennon to draw some pen-and-ink sketches as a present to his new wife. This portfolio, originally entitled "Bag One," is now on tour through North America, with a stop at the DoubleTree Hotel this weekend in Monterey.
"Bag One" consists of lithographs of Lennon and Yoko Ono together, self-portraits, and images that portray emotions John was going through as he separated from the Beatles. The exhibit, called "Music for the Eyes" in its current incarnation, also includes rare photos of Lennon, hand-written lyric sheets of both Beatles'' and Lennon''s songs, memorabilia from Yellow Submarine, and some new art by Yoko Ono.
Ono personally organized the exhibit to share Lennon''s art with the public. Newly returned to New York from Japan, where she attended the funeral of her mother last week, Ono spoke to Coast Weekly via phone interview about art and life with Lennon.
"Our personal lives were always very public," she says, explaining how she decided to sell the drawings into which Lennon had invested so much emotion. "As an artist, he would like his art to be shown, that''s natural. I think all professional artists do it for themselves and to communicate with the public.
"It was very hard for him to get established as an artist," she says. "They only knew him as a very famous musician and they didn''t want to admit he was good [as an artist], but he was. His music and art were connected in the way they were created. He was an inspired artist, it was not labored, and both reflected his character as we know him."
In the art catalogue, Ono writes that "Most of the time, the drawings reflected his mood. Though once, when John was in a dark mood, I looked over his shoulder and found him drawing a very funny picture. Another time, John was in a happy mood, drawing a picture with black humour...using the act of drawing to balance and unite his two minds..."
Most of Lennon''s drawings are very minimal sketches, done in pen-and-ink or in Japanese sumi ink. The images appear as simplistic illustrations conveying his political message of peace and love--a message that both inspired and blossomed from the 1960s anti-war scene--and as childlike drawings documenting moments of family life with Yoko and their son, Sean. After a trip to Japan, being immersed in Japanese culture, and trying to learn Japanese, Lennon created a unique red artist''s mark of Japanese characters, which is traditional for Japanese artists to do. John''s reads: "Like a cloud, beautiful sound." The majority of his art now bears that mark.
These lithographs and other items represent a large cross-section of Lennon''s works of art, some of which are little known except for their controversial beginnings: Erotic and explicit line drawings of Lennon and Ono in bed were pulled by police from the original 1970 London exhibit.
The limited-edition lithographs and estate pieces, signed by either Lennon or Ono, are available for purchase, with proceeds going to help Feed the Children, a nationwide charity which provides food for needy children. "Music for the Eyes" also continues to celebrate last November''s release of the John Lennon Anthology six-CD box set.
Some people, many of whom don''t realize Lennon also dabbled in visual art, have questioned the artistic validity of his drawings. Some wonder if interest stems in part from his celebrity and Beatlemania in general, or if the art has an impact in either a social or artistic context.
"I find the work interesting, but I think people will go see it initially based on name recognition," says Richard Gadd, director of the Monterey Museum of Art. "Creative people are creative in many ways, so sometimes other areas get overlooked, but it doesn''t necessarily make their other art bad. There''s more crossover now as celebrities are going to other fields, and I think it''s usually great. But some musician/artists or writer/artists and other celebrities aren''t so interesting."
Michael Lunt, owner of Recycled Records in New Monterey, adds that although he hasn''t seen much of Lennon''s art except in connection with the music, "I can''t say it''s amazing as art but it probably has meaning to the family. I''ve heard it''s pretty stark, really.
"I hope I''ll see not the Beatles'' influence but a cultural, ''60s influence when I go to the show," he continues. "An artist is an artist, it''s not uncommon for them to have several talents. Joni Mitchell is a good example, she did all her cover art."
While being uncertain about the works'' place in the art world, Gadd strongly feels the works contribute an important voice to culture and the arts. "It''s important to show history, even recent," he says. "That''s a function of some art, like Picasso''s ''Guernica'' and the [Spanish Civil] war. It reminds us of what was going on and, being art, it''s more readily absorbed.
"It''s good exposure for the arts in general because people will come because he''s John Lennon and they''ll see a style of art. If he was ''John Smith,'' maybe no one would go, but the name will draw them out to an art event. The general public enjoys it in a different way than the art community, they accept it more now."
It has been said, by Ono and others, that Lennon created art primarily for personal amusement and pleasure, and only secondarily to get across a sociopolitical message. He once wrote, "If art were to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness."
"He had a different kind of expression, he was always an outsider," Ono says. "Some had this black humor, some very contemporary. It was an animation style, not abstract, but not really [classically] artistic. As an artist, he had complexity."
At the same time, she admits Lennon''s art had a nave quality to it, in part a result of the times in which they were created. "Some things [drawings] were beautifully simple," she says. "Something that is nave always survives." In looking forward to the new millenium, Ono recognizes the peaceful message she encouraged and Lennon vocalized in "Imagine" still has a long way to go. "It''s just another year really, but it is a good time to look back over the century. There''s a lot of things we could''ve done but didn''t get to, and there''s good things we did accomplish. Society is something we create."
While the question of the artistic value of Lennon''s art can be debated for years, his creativity has influenced more than that field. The subtle humor in his art, his clever lyrics, and his political opinions still resonate, just not so loudly in these jaded times. cw
"Music for the Eyes" is on display at the DoubleTree Hotel, Portola Plaza, Friday-Sunday. A suggested donation of $2 benefits Feed the Children.