ROLL OVER VAN GOGH
John Lennon visual artist
Endowed with a natural inclination towards drawing as well as a fervid imagination, it was almost inevitable that John Lennon would end up at the Liverpool College of Art, where he started in September 1957. A complicated and problematic student, he did not shine for his academic results; however, despite his intolerance of discipline and college programmes, he found an environment which was not entirely hostile to the development of his talents, and which at times went as far as to offer encouragement from those teachers capable of recognising them, such as the painter Arthur Ballard. Nevertheless, the decisive event of that period was his meeting with Stuart Sutcliffe: both headstrong rebels, the two friends nurtured an interest in breakaway movements, such as impressionism and the historical avant-garde, as well as those obstinately and romantically controversial figures such as Nicolas De Staël and Vincent Van Gogh, who – according to Philip Norman – “even more than Elvis Presley now became the hero against whom John Lennon measured the world.”
After 1962, year of the Beatles’ recording debut, John Lennon seemed to abandon all artistic ambition, despite continuing to use impromptu surfaces on which to sketch drawings, caricatures and cartoon strips. These images often stood alone, or at other times would accompany thoughts, notes, letters, prose and verse, such as those later gathered together in the volumes John Lennon in His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. His grotesque, deformed figures, enchantingly monstrous, his humanised animals and his other bizarre compositions owe something – if not in the stroke, at least in terms of imaginative freedom – to Saul Steinberg, and even more so to James Thurber, the humorist, writer and cartoonist of the ‘New Yorker’, with whom Lennon shared a scathing irony and yet an almost childish naivety of stroke.
Their fame and ensuing inclusion in the international jet set also brought the Beatles into direct contact with the contemporary art world. Of particular importance in this respect was the role of Robert Fraser, gallerist and prominent figure of Swinging Sixties’ London, who suggested Peter Blake for the front cover of Sgt. Pepper in 1967 and the following year, Richard Hamilton for the cover of the White Album. Fraser also part-financed Yoko Ono’s exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London in 1966, at the opening of which, on 9th November, John Lennon was to meet her for the first time.
In mid-1968, John and Yoko began to work together on a great number of artistic projects, which then developed into performances, installations, films and – of course – music albums. These projects were broadly influenced by the mainstays of Fluxus: a multimedia approach, improvisation, an interest in popular/mass culture, the intermingling of art and life: all concepts which, thanks to the famous couple, gained levels of popularity which until then had been unconceivable.
On 20th March 1969, they got married in Gibraltar, and immediately after their wedding they embarked on their Bed-In for Peace, from 25th to the 31st March, at the Hotel Hilton in Amsterdam (later followed by that held at the Reine Elizabeth in Montréal, starting on the 26th May). Perfectly in tune with the spirit of their times and of Fluxus, the Bed-In lay midway between a political protest and a happening, leaving ample space for chance, for the mixing of languages and media (the written and the spoken word, the body, music etc.). The series of lithographs entitled Bag One is also very much bound up with the wedding, having been conceived as a wedding gift for Yoko, and brought together in a splendid white leather bag designed by Ted Lapidus. Several sheets from the bag, depicting the couple in moments of intimacy with great naturalness, were seized by Scotland Yard from the London Arts Gallery on 16th January 1970 due to their being deemed scandalous: a judgment that was later rejected by the law courts. The following year, the series Bag One was put on show at the Galleria Ponte Sisto in Rome from 21st October to 16th November, together with an introduction by Attilio Battistini, editor of men’s magazines such as ‘Men’ and ‘Playmen’, who had already been tried and sentenced more than once for the publication and sale of obscene imagery.
An enormous number of films were shot by John Lennon and Yoko Ono around the turn of the decade, influenced by first manifestations of video art and, they were also more than passingly familiar with the early cinema of Andy Warhol. Their debut in this field came with Smile and Two Virgins, both produced using Super-8 in the gardens of Kenwood (Lennon’s home in Weybridge). The first features a static and extremely slowed-down image of Lennon’s face, while in the second his face is juxtaposed onto Yoko’s, both captured in continuous movement until, at the end of the film, the two figures come apart only to join in an embrace. Within this large group of works, the film entitled Rape stands out. Shot at the end of 1968 and transmitted on Austrian public TV on 31st March of the following year, the film revolves around the ‘persecution’ of a passerby, followed insistently by the film camera for 75 minutes, almost making her fall under a bus, and continuing to torment her even after she has reached her house.
Among the numerous films made in this period, we might also remember Honeymoon, a compilation of several moments from their Bed-In; Up Your Legs Forever and Fly, which depicts the wanderings of a fly across a woman’s naked body. The film entailed a number of foreseeable difficulties during shooting. In fact, it was no easy task to manage to keep the actress – Virginia Lust – still, and even harder to persuade the fly to respect the desires of the two directors!