Inspired by Flowers

Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.

Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.

Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.

Other flower symbolism includes:

  • Amaryllis – pride
  • Cypress – death, mourning or despair
  • Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
  • Daisy – innocence
  • Gladiolus – strength of character
  • Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
  • Iris – good news
  • Lavender – devotion
  • Marigold – pain and grief
  • Orchid – refined beauty
  • Pansy – thoughtfulness
  • Primrose – eternal love
  • Rosemary – remembrance
  • Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
  • Violet – faithfulness

Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.

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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922

Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”

Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.

Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.

After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.

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The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.

The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.

The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.

From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.

“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe

Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.

O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)

As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.

For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.

The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.

Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.

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Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.

Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.

At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.

Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.

An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.

A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.

In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.

Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.

It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.

Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.

Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.

By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

William Morris (1834-96)

William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.

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Strawberry Thief

The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.

By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.

Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.

Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.

Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.

The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.

Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.

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Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).

At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.

Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.

Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.

Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had a chance to talk to him, I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is, not about who he went out with last night or why he decided to sit out in the sun for so long.”
– Michael Jackson, 1993

Coinciding with what would have been his 60th birthday, the National Portrait Gallery presents their exhibition of the year, Michael Jackson: On the Wall. With number one hits from age 11, Jackson is known not just for his music but his choreography, dancing ability, fashion and humanitarian efforts, too. Despite his death in 2009, Jackson continues to be a major influence on contemporary art.

Before anyone gets excited about a Michael Jackson exhibition, it needs to be noted that this is not a biographical display of the life of the “King of Pop”, nor are there any memorabilia or personal artefacts. On the Wall is about artwork and Jackson’s influence on 48 different artists from different generations and areas of the world.

 

 

On entering the exhibition, a gallant prince on horseback almost jumps off the wall taking the attention away from Keith Haring’s (1958-90) untitled abstract portrait of Michael Jackson hanging on the left of the entrance. On closer inspection, the figure turns out to be Jackson, imitating the Spanish king in Peter Paul Rubens‘ (1577-1640) The Restoration of Philip II on Horseback (c1630). The artist, Kehinde Wiley (b1977), is known for his paintings of African-Americans, which attracted Jackson’s attention in the early 2000s. Becoming his final commissioned portrait, Jackson asked Wiley to paint him in the typical style of European art history in order to challenge the stereotypes surrounding black people in the United States. This was an issue, as the exhibition highlights, which Jackson felt strongly about.

Although it is almost a decade since Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June 2009, artists are still enamoured with his compassion for those treated unfairly and the way [he] makes [them] feel. The year after his death, the diverse artist Lyle Ashton Harris (b1965) produced Black Ebony II (2010), which hangs close by the regal portrait of the “King of Pop”. “I remained intrigued by the vulnerability, the genius that was Michael Jackson and how his global presence still haunts the contemporary phantom scene.”

 

Some of the works have been purposely created by artists for this exhibition, for example, Graham Dolphin’s (b.1972) walls of record sleeves. Dolphin is well-known for his text art in which he hand writes minuscule words on top of pre-existing materials. In this instance, he has collaged together multiple sleeve issues of Michael Jackson’s albums Thriller and Off the Wall – of which the exhibition’s title is a parody. These are part of an ongoing series of work in which the artist explores the themes of fandom and idolatry. Across the sleeves, Dolphin has painstakingly written the complete lyrics of Jackson’s songbook.

After an introduction to a few examples of artwork inspired by Michael Jackson, the exhibition begins to follow Jackson’s timeline from his emergence into the world of fame through to his final years. Although the focus is mostly on the art, details about the singer are included in written descriptions, which help to explain the purpose and intention of each artist.

Michael Jackson was born on 29th August 1958 in Gary, Indiana, the eighth child of a working-class African-American family. His father, Joseph Walter Jackson (1928-2018), formed a band with his eldest sons, Jackie (b1951), Tito (b1953) and Jermaine (b1954), which Michael and another brother, Marlon (b1957) joined in 1964 as backing musicians on congas and tambourines. Michael was only 6 years old when he joined what would become known as the Jackson 5. The next year he was promoted to lead singer, a position he shared with Jermaine. By the tender age of 11, Michael and his brothers were already at the top of the charts with singles such as ABC and I’ll Be There.

 

During the 1970s, Michael Jackson grew from a child performer to a teen idol. Breaking away from his brothers as a solo artist, becoming the first black musician to receive worldwide fame. With studio albums and singles being released at great speed, Jackson was quickly becoming one of the most idolised musicians, winning award after award with barely a break in between, after all, you don’t stop ’til you get enough.

The National Portrait Gallery displays a handful of drawings the British painter Dawn Mellor (b1970) drew during her teenage years. These are what today’s youth call “fanart”, in which they copy pictures of their favourite stars or create imaginary scenarios derived from works in which the celebrity has been involved. Mellor also doodled portraits of the athlete Carl Lewis (b1961) and comedian Richard Pryor (1940-2005) who, like Jackson, were transcending barriers that usually limited African Americans.

Michael Jackson’s face became an iconic image after Andy Warhol (1928-87) created a series of silkscreen prints in 1984 to accompany an article in Time Magazine titled “Why He’s A Thriller”. Warhol was an avid Jackson fan and collected many of his records; commodities, such as look-a-like dolls; and newspaper clippings about the star.

As well as his physical appearance, fashion preferences and song lyrics, Jackson was also known for being a dancing machine. Some of these moves are difficult to replicate, although, many have now conquered the “moonwalk”. A more challenging dance move introduced by Jackson is “the freeze” in which he balanced on the very tip of his toes. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom (b1984), who recently graduated from the Royal Acadamy Schools, produced a tribute to the “King of Pop” by replicating the famous “freeze” with latex balloons, ribbons and penny loafer shoes. A version of this sculpture is situated in the centre of one of the rooms in the exhibition, the shoes standing on their toes, held up by the balloons. Not only does this sculpture honour the late singer, it has metaphorical connotations too.

“… the replacement of the balloons as they individually deflate plays on the continuous work and effort in upholding an admired public image.”
– Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom

 

Living in the limelight has its positive and negative aspects. Being one of the most famous black men in the world, Michael Jackson was in a position to be to heard and listened to by millions of people. He advocated for equal rights, insisting that it did not matter if you were black or whiteJackson visited sick children around the world, giving them gifts and a moment to remember on Michael’s Heal The World Campaign in the 1990s. He turned his 3000-acre estate, Neverland Valley, into an amusement park with two zoos containing animals such as llamas, tigers, giraffes and elephants, and invited disadvantaged children to enjoy themselves.

Faith Ringgold (b1930), known for her narrative quilts, has been an activist in various feminist and anti-racism groups since the 1970s. One of her “story quilts”, which features in this exhibition, contains a figure of Michael Jackson in its centre. Her aim was to denounce racism and discrimination through her artwork.

“Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be.”
– They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson

Jackson wrote songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song as a means of getting the message across about the inequalities in the world. Some people loved him for this, however, others began to despise him. This, unfortunately, kept Jackson under critical scrutiny, which anyone would find difficult to bear.

Michael Jackson could be recognised everywhere he went, his face was easy to remember. His features were so unique that he could be identified by his eyes only, as emphasised in Mark Ryden’s (1963) cover work for the album Dangerous (1991). Jackson’s eyes can be seen peeking through a mask-like shape at the top of the composition. Ryden was inspired by various pre-existing ideas including The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and the photograph Cecil Beaton (1904-80) took of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation.

Ryden’s purpose for including so many elements in his composition, for instance, a fairground ride and a host of dressed-up animals, was to convey a cluttered mind. From talking to Jackson, Ryden determined that the singer’s mind was a jumble of memories or a fun house, the latter also being an allusion to Neverland Valley. This also suggests Jackson’s frustration and loss of childhood due to becoming famous at such a young age. Instead of running around with other six and seven-year-olds, he was already having to keep up his demeanour for his adoring fans.

As befalls many a celebrity, Michael Jackson began having issues with his physical appearance, particularly his nose. His dissatisfaction also stemmed from his childhood and the way he was treated by his father. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson admitted to “his tendency to remain hyper-compliant” in order to avoid a tirade or abuse. Allegedly, Joseph Jackson would whip his son and tell him that he had a fat nose. This, ultimately, led to several nose jobs that drastically altered Michael Jackson’s appearance. A thinner nose noticeably altered the overall shape of Jackson’s face, as shown in a posthumous painting by a French street artist, alias Mr Brainwash (1966).

 

Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery almost glosses over Michael Jackson’s final years, particularly his deteriorating appearance. Whether or not people believe the claim that he had only had a couple of nose jobs, it is clear that Jackson no longer looked like the young African American boy he was back in the day. The Gallery also fails to comment on the skin disease with which Jackson supposedly suffered. Vitiligo is a disease in which the melanocytes or pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas, thus causing the skin to appear white. This can affect people of all skin colours, however, the darker the skin, the more noticeable it becomes. It is unlikely to cause the entire skin to become white, which is why many people did not accept Jackson’s claims.

Maggi Hambling’s (b1945) portrait of Michael Jackson is one of the very few visual references to his change in skin tone. The pop star was reportedly diagnosed with vitiligo in 1984, however, there were also rumours he had been skin bleaching. Jackson’s biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, also states that he suffered from lupus, which made his skin extremely sensitive to light. Despite these statements, many people refused to believe that Jackson was ill, however, vitiligo was diagnosed in his autopsy report.

With all the negative press, it is no wonder Michael Jackson began to hate the sight of the man in the mirror, however, he still had many loyal fans throughout the world. In 2017, Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming (1960) painted a portrait in memory of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to discover how wide a fanbase Jackson had, reaching as far as Asia where the Western world has less of an impact.

 

Some fans revered Michael Jackson to the point that he became more than human in their eyes. One fan was the American commercial photographer David LaChapelle (b1963) who believed Jackson’s life reached almost Biblical proportions. This is a controversial subject that many may not agree with or even be offended by, however, LaChappelle saw many similarities between Jackson and Jesus Christ.

The photographer believes “we persecuted him”, listening to malicious gossip and rumours. Whilst Jackson was trying to do good, helping disadvantaged children and improving opportunities for African Americans, the world painted him as bad or even a smooth criminal, accusing him of child abuse, vanity and so forth.

LaChappelle created a series of manipulated photographs in homage to Michael Jackson, positioning him in in front of different backgrounds, adding wings and other figures to make him look like an angel that had defeated the devil or a man who had been crucified.

Although these ideas are rather extreme, they emphasise the serious allegations inflicted upon Jackson compared with the way LaChappelle wishes the musician could be remembered. As Jackson once said, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” LaChappelle is trying to preserve Michael Jackson’s dignity for his fans and his family.

At Michael Jackson’s memorial service, the Reverend Al Sharpton (b1954) also tried to preserve Jackson’s memory. He wanted Jackson’s children, Michael Joseph Jr (b1997), Paris-Michael (b1998), and Prince Michael II “Blanket” (b2002), to know that “there was nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

 

Other artworks in Michael Jackson: On the Wall included videos, music clips, sculpture and painting. A particularly amusing exhibit was Michael Lee Bush’s “dinner jacket”, which was purposely made to look similar to clothing Jackson often wore. Bush was Jackson’s costume designer for 26 years, but when he was asked to replicate Jackson’s dinner jacket, he played with the word “dinner” by adding lots of cutlery over the chest and back.

The exhibition culminated in Candice Breitz’s (b1978) video installation of a number of German-speaking Michael Jackson fans singing Thriller a capella. The purpose of this project is not entirely clear and is quite frankly a disappointing end to the overall exhibition. Michael Jackson: On the Wall started off promising but lost strength towards the end. It almost felt as though the curator was struggling to fill the final rooms.

Nonetheless, On the Wall is primarily an art exhibition and, therefore, achieves what it set out to do: reveal how Michael Jackson influenced art. Jackson fans, however, may be disappointed with the lack of information about his life as his career grew and the disregard for his final struggles.

 

Viewing a life through works of art is an interesting idea but a more appropriate approach for a singer would be to hear their life through music. Since 2009, fans have had the opportunity to learn a little about Michael Jackson by listening to his music at the Lyric Theatre on Shafestbury Avenue in a 2-hour plus production of Thriller Live. Named after Jackson’s best selling album of all time, the show is currently the 15th longest running show in the West End as well as the longest running at the Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1888.

The non-stop hit songs include titles by the Jackson 5, such as Rockin’ Robin and Blame it on the Boogie, as well as all of the Michael Jackson favourites from all decades of his career. Dancers and singers perform the songs dressed to look like Michael Jackson and his backing group whilst the audience cheers and joins in, encouraged to stand up by the lead vocalist.

Although too loud for some people, Thriller Live is perfect for Michael Jackson fans, especially those who never got a chance to see him live in concert. The vocals and dance moves mimic the “King of Pop”, providing a perfect example of what Jackson usually provided for his audience.

Whilst Thriller Live is targetted at Michael Jackson fans, the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition is supposed to attract anyone interested in art, however, it has a greater appeal for those who loved his music. To fully appreciate both the exhibition and the stage production, the audience needs to be familiar with the “King of Pop”, his music history, and the causes he felt strongly about.

The National Portrait Gallery will be hosting Michael Jackson: On the Wall until 21st October 2018. Tickets range from £15.50 to £22 and advanced booking is advised for those who are not members of the gallery. Tickets for Thriller Live start at £32 and can be purchased online.

Note: phrases in bold allude to song titles 

Pop the American Dream

 

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Jasper Johns (b1930) Flags I

 

The past 60 years have seen significant changes in the United States of America. As the country became more industrialised, upsetting many workers and families, people began to reject the past government methods and ideals, in response to the changing times. Although sometimes resulting in adverse outcomes, for example, assassinations, citizens passionately expressed their views on the changing times, highlighting racism, homophobia, AIDS and other crises.

Although often open to interpretation, artwork can provide a more accurate representation of past events than written accounts, which may omit truths and lack evidence. The Great Depression of the 1930s prompted the beginning of a new wave of art, now known as Abstract Expressionism, which expressed the artists’ opinions far more greatly than landscapes and portraits that only depicted what the eye could see.

The development of technology meant that the tools available to artists increased, thus a new art movement exploded onto the scene. Pop Art is a term that encompasses works of many famous American artists, such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who, with the help of technological advancement, experimented with printmaking and bold, vibrant colours.

The British Museum in London is currently displaying examples of Pop Art in their exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present (until 18th June 2017). Amongst the assorted works is the notable Marilyn Diptych by the aforementioned Warhol, which despite being recognised by the majority, is not usually easy to view in person.

Coined in the late 1950s by art critic Lawrence Alloway, Pop Art is the term used to describe the artwork and imagery based on consumerism and popular culture. Artists appropriated iconography from comic books, advertisements, television and film in their artworks and designs, thus appealing to the common people rather than the highbrow interests of the upper classes.

As an expansion of Abstract Expressionism, this latest movement rejected the theories and seriousness of art and welcomed the new methods and machines that allowed artists to reproduce imagery of everyday items. Examples of this new way of production can be seen in Jasper Johns paintings of flags, numbers and beer cans. Robert Rauschenberg took this one step further, employing collage to demonstrate a range of subject matter.

Eventually, even the use of painting was rejected in preference of commercial techniques, for example, screen-printing, which Warhol is famous for utilising. Video demonstrations can be viewed at the British Museum of the screen-printing process. In fact, it shows Warhol producing one of his numerous works, applying stencils and paint to produce the shapes and imagery he intended.

By using commercial techniques, Pop Art, unlike previous art movements, was quick and easy to produce, making it a suitable method of expressing the views and wants of the people of America. As food, motor vehicles and sex became commodities in the eye of the public, artists were swift to encompass these themes in their work. As a result, these contemporary methods and styles were the go to media to produce banners, posters and such forth to demonstrate views on black civil rights, homosexuality, the AIDs crisis, war in Vietnam and so forth.

Britain was also influenced by the growing popularity of Pop Art, particularly inspiring artists such as David Hockney and Richard Hamilton. Hamilton expressed the style as “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.” Despite his overindulgence of adjectives, Hamilton is certainly correct about its popularity, no doubt enhanced by the easy and lack of cost to mass-produce the artwork. Unlike other art movements, which start off small before eventually being recognised, Pop Art was a success on a material level, appealing to both the public and collectors.

Naturally, there were critics who retained an unfavourable opinion of the flamboyant movement. Harold Rosenberg, an American writer, deemed Pop Art “a joke without humour, told over and over again until it begins to sound like a threat.” Noting the use of commercial technology, Rosenberg expanded his opinion, stating that it was like “Advertising art which advertises itself as art that hates advertising.”

Despite the contrasting opinions, Pop Art certainly had its uses, as demonstrated in the British Museum’s exhibition. Examples of posters and artwork featuring the typical style are shown alongside videos and explanations of the growing unrest, boycotts and protests occurring throughout the 60s and 70s in America. However, the original intention of Pop Art remains ambiguous. Certainly, it benefitted the expression of political discord, but was the movement created with that in mind?

The initial rooms within the exhibition The American Dream appear to be more experimental than purposeful. With technological developments happening around them, artists appeared to be thinking “what happens if I do this?” rather than “I am doing this because …” Experimentation with various methods of printmaking provided artists with the opportunity to learn and discover new techniques and apply. Take, for example, Jim Dirie’s paintbrush etchings (c1970s), of which he did several. There is no message, such as with the majority of Pop Art, yet he has used one of the developing methods of the time. The fact that Dirie produced so many of the same object, implies he was searching for a style and effect he was happy with aesthetically, rather than attempting to communicate anything to the audience.

Robert Longo is another artist featured in the exhibition who appears to have used typical Pop Art techniques as a method of producing art, rather than conforming to the commercial and demonstrative scene. Famed for his hyper-realistic charcoal drawings, Longo has produced numerous illustrations of the same figures (Eric and Cindy) in various expressive dance poses. Firstly by staging photo shoots, Longo copies the figures onto paper to produce life-size representations. Although charcoal is his primary medium, the version of Eric and Cindy presented in the exhibition is created using lithography, a technique often applied in the commercial printing industry (pre the computer-age).

Lithography involves drawing (usually in wax) onto a stone slab or other suitable material. With the application of chemicals and ink, a print of the drawing can then be transferred to paper. This method provides the opportunity to create several copies of the artwork, rather than painstakingly sketching each one from scratch. Longo, an exhibiting visual artist, most likely employed this technique in order to benefit himself, rather than as a contribution to the movement.

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As the exhibition progresses, the artwork becomes more functional, particular in terms of politics. Pop Art was an expressive means of getting opinions across to a wide audience, in particular, members of the general public who may be interested in the pop culture references. Displayed in chronological order, enabling viewers to witness the progression of the movement, the artwork covers all the major events that occurred in America from the 1960s onwards.

Although visual methods of propaganda had already been used before, Pop Art was probably the first opportunity the general populace had to communicate their beliefs and attitudes. This is something that is still employed today, for example during public marches and demonstrations, or in the form of guerrilla advertising.

The Pop Art aesthetic may not appeal to all, but it reveals so much more than an artist’s skill. The movement has altered the way society can involve itself in matters where they have previously been forced into silence. It is not merely an art movement, it is a form of widespread expression. Without it, many people may not have the rights they take for granted today.

Only a month remains of the exhibition, so if you wish to view the collection of American Pop Art, you need to get yourself to the British Museum as soon as possible. As a bonus, under 16s can get in for free!