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Book Review: ‘John Lennon: The Collected Artwork’ – The Beatle as a Visual Artist

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Cover John Lennon The Collected ArtworkIt 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.
John Lennon
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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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • gwarseneau

    January 22, 2015

    The vast majority so-called “artwork” attributed to John Lennon, was posthumously reworked and altered to fit a marketing and sales strategy by Yoko Ono and her business associates. like Legacy Fine Art & Productions Inc., to cash in at the expense the unsuspecting public, much less the true legacy of John Lennon.

    The dead don’t create artwork.

    What proof is there to support these allegations?

    FIRST, Legacy Fine Art & Production Inc. states on their website:

    “At the time of his death, John had saved and preserved several hundred drawings that he considered important. In 1986, Yoko Ono began releasing limited editions of some of the meaningful drawings, using only fine art printing techniques, with the goal of re-establishing John Lennon as an important artist of his time.” http://johnlennonartwork.com/faq/

    The dead don’t sign and number editions.

    U.S. COPYRIGHT LAW
    That factual perspective is confirmed by U.S. Copyright Law, which in part, states:

    “A ‘work of visual art’ is— (1) a painting, drawing, print or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author, or, in the case of a sculpture, in multiple cast, carved, or fabricated sculptures of 200 or fewer that are consecutively numbered by the author and bear the signature or other identifying mark of the author;”

    http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#101

    SECOND, Legacy Fine Art Production Inc. states on their website:

    “Serigraphs use a silkscreen to reproduce fine lines and colors. Stone lithographs are hand-pulled on a printing press using stone plates with the image transferred to the fine art paper. Each artwork was released in the medium most suited to capturing the original drawing.” http://johnlennonartwork.com/faq/

    The dead don’t create lithographs, serigraphs and etchings.

    U.S. CUSTOMS INFORMED COMPLIANCE MAY 2006
    This factual perspective is confirmed by U.S. Customs Informed Compliance May 2006, which in part, states:

    “The expression “original engravings, prints and lithographs” means impressions produced directly, in black and white or in color, of one or of several plates wholly executed by hand by the artist, irrespective of the process or of the material employed by him, but excluding any mechanical or photomechanical process.” To confirm, click on this link:
    Works of Art, Collector’s Pieces, Antiques, and Other Cultural Property
    -05/01/2006

    THIRD, Legacy Fine Art Production Inc. states on their website:

    “Continuing a collaboration that was at the heart of their relationship throughout their life together, Yoko Ono, a world-renowned artist herself, chose colors that she felt would enhance the meaning of the original drawings.” http://johnlennonartwork.com/faq/

    The dead don’t collaborate, much less approve the posthumous alteration and colorization of posthumous reproductions from John Lennon’s lifetime black & white drawings.

    WORK OF VISUAL ART -EXCLUDES- COPIES THAT ARE COLLABORATIVE
    This is confirmed in the Visual Artist’s Rights Act (H.R. bill 5316), which amended the Copyright Act of 1976, and was signed into law on December 1, 1990. In the 1995 The Visual Artist’s Business and Legal Guide compiled and edited by Gregory T. Victoroff, Esq., attorney Katherine M. Thompson specifically addresses issue of “collaboration” in the 1990 Visual Artist’s Rights Act. On page 28, the attorney wrote: “The VARA amends the Copyright Act to create a definition for a “work of visual art.” According to Section 602, -excluded are items – that generally exist in multiple copies and are collaborative in nature.”

    Rhetorically, does Yoko Ono really believe that she can collaborate with the dead John Lennon or does it seem that Yoko Ono and her business associates Legacy Fine Art & Production Inc. believes and acts on the belief that the rule of law and the laws of nature do not apply to them?

    FOURTH, Legacy Fine Art Production Inc. states on their website:

    “Each limited edition fine art print is authenticated by John Lennon’s embossed signature, the embossed printer and publisher’s mark, Yoko Ono Lennon’s hand-signature, and John Lennon’s personal chop mark.” [a.k.a.] “Artists in the Orient sign their works with an individual patented stamp known as a chop. John Lennon’s [to the left], which is hand-stamped in red on each edition, was designed by him to read “Like a Cloud, Beautiful Sound.” http://johnlennonartwork.com/faq/

    The dead don’t sign, much less approve the application of their chop.

    DEFINITION OF SIGNATURE
    This factual perspective is confirmed on page 1387 in the Seventh Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, the term -signature- is defined as: “A person’s name or mark written by that person or at the person’s direction.”

    FIFTH, the hubris of Yoko Ono and Legacy Fine Art & Productions Inc. is never more evident when they use the good name and reputations of a local charity, like the “Adopt the Arts” to foster the illusion that the Artwork of John Lennon exhibition and sale has been somehow vetted by the non-profit, much less with its’ association with a non-profit.

    $3 DOLLAR DONATION AT DOOR IS ALL THE CHARITY GETS
    Then to add insult to injury, the only money going to the charity is the voluntary $3 donation given at the door by the unsuspecting public at this so-called “Artwork of John Lennon” exhibition and sale. All of the sales of more than 72,000 non-disclosed- posthumous [after 1986] colorized and altered forgeries, with counterfeit John Lennon chopmark/signatures in bogus editions, goes into Yoko Ono and her business associates’ pockets.

    SIXTH, Yoko Ono’s company Bag One Arts Inc. is located at 110 West 79th Street, New York, NY 10024-6402 with the (212) 595-5537 telephone number.

    NEW YORK CIVIL CODE
    Under New York Civil Code 15.01 (2.) states: “Article fifteen of the New York arts and cultural affairs law provides for disclosure in writing of certain information concerning multiples of prints and photographs when sold for more than one hundred dollars ($100) – whether the multiple is a reproduction.”

    The penalties for violation of New York Civil Code statutes under 15.15 may include but not limited to -refund-treble damages-court costs-expert witness fees-attorney fees- and not to mention potential civil fines.

    In the State of New York under New York Civil Code 11.01, -counterfeit- is defined as: “a work of fine art or multiple made, altered or copied, with or without intent to deceive, in such a manner that it appears or is claimed to have an authorship which it does not in fact possess.”

    Therefore, the question is: Are Yoko Ono and her business associates -alter[ing]- the so-called Artwork of John Lennon, they offer for sale, “in such a manner that it appears or is claimed to have an authorship which it does not in fact possess?”

    Caveat Emtpor!

    Gary Arseneau
    artist, creator of original lithographs
    Fernandina Beach, Florida

    • NekoInSpace

      That’s the same thing I thought about. I appreciate your post :3