“Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realized that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity. Surrealism to me is reality.” — John Lennon to David Sheff, September 1980 (The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
John Lennon would have turned 77 on October 9th. Of course, there have been multitudes of books written about his musical contribution to the world, both as one of The Beatles and as a solo artist. This particular writer has read quite a few of them, and couldn’t agree more that the music world—and perhaps the world as we know it—wouldn’t have been the same without him.
But Lennon’s artistic side wasn't just expressed in his music; it manifested itself in every aspect of his life. As a teen, it was in the way he dressed, and his sharp and often cruel wit. He found the outlet he desperately needed in his guitar and the rock 'n' roll that was making its way across the Atlantic, and ultimately became one of the greatest songwriters in the world. But before he was an icon, before he was a world-renowned musician, Lennon was an artist. From the time he was a schoolboy, he kept a notebook full of his drawings, dubbed it The Daily Howl, and shared it with his friends and classmates. And he never stopped drawing, no matter what else was changing in his life or his career.
In recent interviews, Yoko Ono has talked about how pleased Lennon would have been to have his own art exhibit. Right now, to celebrate his life's work as well as his birthday, The Art of John Lennon is up at the AFA Gallery in Soho, New York, throughout the month of October. The art has been curated from a collection of rare archival sketches, and is available for acquisition as well as on display to the public for free.
As a tribute to the artist in John Lennon, we’re taking a look at five significant places, people, and events that made his artwork, and his passion for it, change his life, and therefore, arguably, all of ours who listen to him.
1. THE LIVERPOOL COLLEGE OF ART
As a rebellious teenager, there wasn’t much chance of Lennon getting into a traditional college, especially given the strict British educational standards of the 1950s. Luckily, there was the nearby Liverpool College of Art, which became the catalyst for changes in Lennon himself, in his work, and in the early development of The Beatles.
It was there where his artistic talent was actually noticed and appreciated, and it was a place where he could get to know other artists, some of whom even earned his very hard-won respect including two very important figures in his life: Stu Sutcliffe and Cynthia Powell.
‘Cyn,’ as Lennon called her, became his first wife and the mother of his son Julian. While their marriage ended harshly, she was still his first young love, and his passion for her helped fuel his passion for music and his drive to succeed, especially once he became a father.
Sutcliffe was Lennon’s best friend, and a great source of inspiration. He was considered brilliant by everyone else at the art college, and when he accomplished the amazing feat of selling one of his paintings for 65 pounds, Lennon talked him into spending it on a bass guitar and joining The Beatles, ignoring the fact that he couldn’t really play. While his good looks were a no-brainer for attracting female fans, he usually turned his back to the audience so people couldn’t see that more often than not, he was playing in the wrong key. (A frustrated Paul McCartney eventually took over the bass himself.)
But Sutcliffe’s influence on Lennon as an artist was immeasurable, as was his encouragement of Lennon’s talent. While Lennon’s teachers were frustrated by his rebellious attitude, Sutcliffe was there to reassure him that there really was an artist in there, albeit a misunderstood one.
2. GERMANY: ASTRID, JURGEN, AND KLAUS
In 1960, The Beatles—which at that time meant John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and drummer Pete Best—headed to Hamburg on their very first tour. Soon after their arrival, they met three German art students: Astrid Kirchherr, Jurgen Vollmer, and Klaus Voorman. The three young German artists were immediately drawn to the British bad boys, and the infatuation was mutual. They read Astrid’s books, they ate meals in her mum’s kitchen, and they were fascinated by her art, her photos, and her taste in design. Sutcliffe and Kirchherr fell in love, and Sutcliffe ended up staying in Germany with her, thus freeing himself from his role as a bad bass guitarist.
Kirchherr had a big impact on the group’s style. When Sutcliffe asked her to cut and style his hair like Voorman’s, the rest of the band soon followed, and the famous “Beatle haircut” was born. (Kirchherr later laughed this off, saying that the haircut was already popular in Germany at the time.) Kirchherr also designed her own clothes, and it was she who created the collarless jacket that also became an early Beatles trademark.
Voorman, like Lennon, was a talented artist as well as a musician. He stayed connected to The Beatles throughout their career, winning a Grammy Award for his cover art on their Revolver album. In the 1990s, he designed the cover for the Beatles Anthology albums. He also played on solo albums for Lennon, Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
Vollmer, like Kirchherr, was also a photographer, and they both took dozens of early photos of The Beatles, finding endless inspiration in their subjects, and teaching John the artistic value of a great photograph. Years later, Lennon would choose one of Vollmer’s photos for the cover of his Rock 'n' Roll album, showing him standing in a doorway, the blurred figures of George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Stu Sutcliffe in the foreground.
3. LONDON: MEETING YOKO
Where did John Lennon first meet future wife and soulmate Yoko Ono? At an art show. . .hers, to be precise. Yoko, an avant-garde artist in London, was about to have her very first exhibit at the Indica Gallery, and the day before it opened, Lennon went to preview it on the advice of a friend. He appreciated the absurdity of her work right away, and most of it made him laugh as it challenged his ideas about what art was and wasn't. He responded to her request to nail an imaginary nail into a wall with a hammer for five shillings by offering her an imaginary five shillings. They locked eyes. The connection was made.
4. THE LATE 60s/EARLY 70s ART SCENE: GETTING EXPERIMENTAL
In 1968, they opened their first joint art exhibit, officially titled You Are Here (To Yoko from John Lennon, With Love). Reflecting their interest in performance art and "happenings" as well as gallery art, they wore white to match the gallery walls. After the London opening, they went outside and released 365 white balloons filled with helium into the city. Cards were attached to each one encouraging whoever found them to mail them to Lennon care of the gallery, and those who did so were rewarded with a handwritten thank you note from Lennon.
The two combined their new need to be inseparable as a couple with their art, music, and performance. From their rather unlistenable squalls on their first album together, Two Virgins, and its cover featuring their naked, unretouched bodies, to their experiments in bagism (which included an entire press conference given from inside a bag) and their planting of “acorns of peace” in the garden of Coventry Cathedral, they played with the definition of art and politics, willing to try anything to see what messages got through to a bewildered but often fascinated public. They created happenings, made films, and Lennon, as always, kept drawing.
Lennon and Ono—now dubbed JohnandYoko by Lennon—married in 1969. As a wedding gift, Lennon presented Ono with a collection of erotic drawings of the two of them called Bag One. When they set up a gallery exhibit featuring the drawings a year later, Scotland Yard came to shut it down, confiscating 8 of the 14 prints. “Depravity and corruption” were the issues at hand, and later dismissed by a judge. In 1981, the same collection went on a worldwide tour, hitting 100 different cities, and, still controversial after all those years, was shut down in Rhode Island, due to so-called obscenity. These days, it's part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
5. NEW YORK AND JAPAN: FINDING CONTENTMENT IN FAMILY LIFE
In what were to be his final years, Lennon kept drawing. Ono reports that he was at it all the time, not just in meetings that bored him but everywhere they went, and he was so frequently pushing his creations at her that she would laugh and say “yeah, yeah" when he handed her yet another new one.
In June of 1977, Lennon and family went on an extended visit to Japan. Still open to all kinds of artistic influences, he started adding a sort of signature to his newer work: a traditional red artist's mark of Japanese characters. His translated to "like a cloud, beautiful sound."
His drawings never lost their whimsy, but he softened up around the edges. No longer drawing the “cripples” he used to create in his Daily Howl notebook, his favorite subject was now the trio of John, Yoko and their son Sean. The pictures were happy ones; portraits of a man who had finally found contentment and made peace with himself.
Since John's death in 1980, Yoko has helped organize several exhibits of his work. In 2012, she added color to several of his drawings and showed and sold them as a fundraiser for a food bank in Connecticut. There have been many exhibits since then and curated collections of his artwork on display across the globe. You don't need to be rich to own some of his creations: You can buy crib sheets for your baby filled with his whimsical animal drawings, plus books of his art, and printed reproductions.
The current exhibit in Soho is a tribute to the man who battled his demons in public decades before the world of selfies and internet stardom. For years, he was never sure if he was a genius or a fool. Meeting Paul McCartney is what solidified his belief that he was meant to play music, and in the most palpable argument ever in favor of the expression "greater than the sum of its parts," the combination of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr (with help from geniuses who understood what they were dealing with like producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) showed the world that he'd been right all along to buy that guitar and discard his Aunt Mimi's wish that he go and get himself a real job. Her famous quote, “The guitar's all right John, but you'll never make a living out of it,” never daunted him.
When it came to his art, he did get some encouragement for his drawings over the years, but his first two books capitalized on his fame as a Beatle, hoping to draw in the record-buying fans by virtue of his name on the cover. It was meeting Ono, and straying from that safe, Beatle image, that showed him he was an artist as well. Until then, he was never quite sure where he stood.
“No one I think is in my tree /You know it must be high or low /That is, you can't, you know, tune in, but it's all right /That is I think it's not too bad.” — John Lennon,"Strawberry Fields Forever"
*If you find yourself in New York this month, check out The Art of John Lennon exhibit. The AFA Gallery in Soho is open daily from 10am–7pm, and 11am–6pm on Sundays. Special events and programming will be scheduled throughout the month. For more information, visit www.afanyc.com.