Wednesday 22 April 2015


It might be hard for those who didn’t live through the arc of John Lennon’s life to understand the impact this one man had on people around the world. Coming out of the darkness surrounding the end of World War II and the paranoia of the 1950s, The Beatles were a breath of fresh air, a sound of hope and new possibilities. Today their songs from the early 1960s probably don’t sound overly rebellious, but in the context of the times they were new and liberating. Sure there was other pop music at the time, equally good if not better, but The Beatles managed to capture the imaginations of young people around the world like few others.

However, it wasn’t just the music. Part of their appeal was the irreverent humour they projected in their public appearances. While they all shared this characteristic, Lennon’s humour and comments always seemed to have more of an edge to them than the others’. This came to a head with his off-the-cuff comment about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. While this caused the type of backlash you’d expect in certain quarters – burning of Beatles’ records, condemnation by fundamentalist Christians (sound familiar?), and warnings of “he better not show his face around here” – it did nothing to affect the group’s popularity around the world, proving Lennon right in his assessment.

While many of today’s pop stars and celebrities have carefully cultivated images for public consumption, Lennon’s public persona was his true face. Mischievous, sometimes caustic, and often opinionated, what we saw in his appearances and heard in interviews was who he had always been. You only need to glance through a new book, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, from Insight Editions, for proof. For the book contains artwork he created from his childhood onwards, and even in some of those earlier drawings we see manifestations of each of those characteristics.

Before Lennon was a Beatle he had attended the Liverpool Art School. Although he was unable to complete his studies as his music career took off, he continued to sketch and draw for the rest of his life as time allowed. Glancing through the book the first impression is of relatively unsophisticated line drawings that appear to range from doodles to sketches or cartoons. But upon closer examination you realize the looseness of style was a deliberate choice. One need only look at some of the detailed backgrounds in the work to realize the time and effort which were put into each drawing.
In his text for the book Scott Gutterman not only makes an effort to put the illustrations into a historical context in terms of Lennon’s life, but also points out how they reflect the way he looked at the world. While the first of the book’s seven sections offers paintings and sketches from Lennon’s early years, the chapters are not in chronological order. Instead, they have been arranged to give us a sense of who Lennon was as visual artist, and what he attempted to accomplish with his work. 

Most of the chapters’ titles are self-explanatory: “Self Reflection” (Chapter 2), “Observations” (Chapter 3) or “John With Yoko” (Chapter 6). But Chapter 4, “Japanese Translation Drawings”, is different. After the birth of their son Sean, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono would make frequent trips to visit her family in Japan. Not only do the pictures in this section depict Lennon’s attempts to learn Japanese, they also reflect his study of sumi-e, a traditional Japanese style of pen and ink drawing.

The work in this section, and many of the pieces created in the years following, reflect this new influence. However, we also see why Lennon would have been attracted to the form. For while there are distinct stylistic differences: The lines are more definite, and these drawings don’t contain the same amount of detail as others, it’s still a natural extension of the line drawings Lennon had been doing previously. 
On a more personal level, the new style of drawing also reflects the changes he went through during his retirement from 1975 to 1980 when he took time off to raise his new son. There’s a stillness to them indicative of the changes he underwent transitioning from rock and roll star to househusband and father. While Lennon will always be more remembered for his music than his output as a visual artist, the work contained in this book gives us a different view of him as a person and an artist.
They may not be the most sophisticated pieces of art, but each of them reveals something of his nature, whether his sardonic view of middle class values in the work “Squares”, or his love for the simplicity of his domestic life through the depictions of his family in the last years of his life. Most impressive is how much he’s able to communicate with a few strokes of his pen. It’s as if he were able to channel his passion or emotions through this very narrow conduit and have them show up on the page where we can all appreciate them.

Of course there’s the question of whether we’d be seeing these works of art if he weren’t John Lennon. The answer is probably not. However, that does nothing to diminish this book’s importance as a record of Lennon and his life. Those who knew his work as a musician, or knew anything about him when he was alive, will be reminded of those things they admired in him. Whether the pieces will have the same appeal to others is uncertain, as in some ways you’d have to have experienced Lennon the person and musician to fully appreciate them.

John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a beautifully packaged and presented book. The reproductions of his art are as good as those you’d see in any collection of this kind and the accompanying text does a good job of explaining their history and background. Lennon will always be best known as a musician, but this collection of his artwork provides a fascinating look into a different facet of an intelligent, opinionated and original mind. That alone makes it worth owning.

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