Michael Jackson the painter. That’s what ‘Kunstwerke von Michael Jackson: Die unbekannte Seite eines Weltstars’ is all about. Those who have followed Jackson’s career know that he didn’t just sing, but also tried his hand at other forms of art: drawing and painting, for example. Swiss company Artlima AG – with ties to former Jackson manager Dieter Wiesner – has published over 80 of Jackson’s sketches and drawings in a new full-colour publication.
From abstract sculptures to detailed portraits and from seascapes to chairs: Jackson loved to draw. Not many people knew about his art however. Although he often scribbled faces and cartoons on personal notes and memos, it wasn’t until after his death that the full extent of his artwork became known.
Jackson mostly used wax crayons to draw, but he also experimented with water colours and even tea bags. Kunstwerke von Michael Jackson: Die unbekannte Seite eines Weltstars (‘Artworks by Michael Jackson: the unknown side of a world star’) shows the quality and range of the works that Jackson created as an autodidact.
Escaping the world
The first 30 pages of the book introduce Jackson’s explorations in fine art. His mother Katherine, for example, remembers that Jackson started to draw fantasy figures and stars from the silent movie era, such as Charlie Chaplin, at the age of five.
Drawing became Jackson’s way to escape the world. The increasing success of the Jackson 5 and his first solo album, however, prevented him from dedicating more time to his art. Still, the desire to draw and paint never left. It was a way to find some quiet time for himself, and also a way to achieve greatness.
Greatness, in Jackson’s eyes, could be found in the works of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci, or impressionists such as Van Gogh. These giants in art history strengthened his ambition to create something that could stand the test of time. Music, in Jackson’s opinion, could only do so much. Filmmaking and painting, however, could leave an even stronger personal legacy.
Helping Jackson create his artwork was Brett-Livingstone Strong, an Australian-born artist that Jackson met in the USA in 1979. Kunstwerke von Michael Jackson describes in detail how the two met, in what way Strong mentored Jackson, and what the aim was of the ‘Jackson-Strong Alliance’ – a business partnership promoting their fine art in support of various causes.
Much of the information in this section of the book is a German translation of the homepage of the Jackson-Strong Alliance. This is a pity, as the book does not provide any additional insights into Jackson’s art. Nor does the book discuss Jackson’s development in style and technique, but rather presents facts, years, awards and historic details of the Alliance.
Nearly all artworks presented in the book were created by Jackson in the 1990s. This leaves the question why the book contains no works made after this time. Did Jackson stop drawing? Was the Alliance put on hold when Strong filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005? Or did the developments in Jackson’s personal life – parenting three young children while facing accusations of child abuse – take prevalence? Or all of these? As no information is provided about this period, one can only guess.
Another question that is left unanswered is why Kunstwerke von Michael Jackson doesn’t cover Jackson’s sculptures, monuments, and the doors that he designed to be created in bronze and wood. Although these are briefly mentioned, an additional section with larger photographs of these works would have provided a more complete overview of Jackson’s range of art.
The final part of the introduction briefly discusses art that is made of rather than by Jackson. This topic has remained unexplored so far, so it would be interesting to see more examples of the diversity of art inspired by Jackson as an artist. This, however, could probably fill another book.
The book then moves on to over 80 full-colour photographs of Jackson’s drawings and paintings. The works are grouped by theme rather than by collection or time period. Some of Jackson’s earlier drawings include abstract sculpture designs, seascapes, and variations on his MJJ logo. Autobiographical elements appear in his drawings of moonwalking feet, his famous glove and a self-portrait as the Thriller werewolf.
Next, his love of all things Disney is presented. A portrait of Walt Disney is followed by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck playing a game of baseball, and Snow White.
Historical costumes form another theme, with a detailed drawing of a Japanese geisha and a self-portrait in kimono. These are followed by the Renaissance, as Jackson drew Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’, as well as Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and a detail of ‘The Creation of Adam’.
With nearly all of Jackson’s drawings made in red and blue, those made in other colours stand out. One example is his drawing of a yellow sunflower or his abstract red and yellow drawing of the sun. Even more surprising is a set of abstract works that he created by using wet tea bags.
A significant number of works has a patriotic theme. A drawing of the Wright Brothers plane, for example, is followed by portraits of General Armstrong Custer and Chief Sitting Bull, the Statue of Liberty, the American eagle emblem, and various portraits of American presidents.
Celebrity portraits form another big section of Jackson’s drawings. Movie icons, painters and politicians he admired include Andy Warhol, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Martin Luther King, and Marilyn Monroe.
A completely different theme in Jackson’s drawings are keys and chairs, as well as ornate doors. These are often adorned with faces – one of them inspired by his pet chimp Bubbles – and with the number seven, which held a special significance for Jackson.
Neverland is another theme that, of course, inspired Jackson. An ornate theatre plaque and a Peter Pan gate are among the designs he made to decorate his iconic ranch in Los Olivos.
British royalty is a topic that also fascinated Jackson. He drew the ornate gates of Buckingham Palace as well as a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation. The Jacksons had met in her in person in Glasgow in 1977.
A painter reveals himself not just in what he paints or draws, but also in how he chooses to do so. Perhaps one of the most interesting drawings in this sense is Jackson’s depiction of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Jackson drew the statue from the back, as if looking over Christ’s shoulder to watch Him create the sun, the stars, the rainbows and the entire universe. It’s Jackson’s tribute to the ultimate Creator, and one of the few drawings in the book for which he used more than just two colours.
In 2014, Artlima signed an agreement with Strong to bring the drawings and paintings under their auspices. Plans were announced for an exhibition in Monaco in 2015, but whether or not this project took place is unknown. Still, an exhibition including Jackson’s full range of fine art might be of value to museums with an interest in contemporary art and popular culture.
Taking it one step further, Jackson’s art could also be part of a larger and long overdue exhibition about his full career, much like David Bowie’s paintings form part of the acclaimed David Bowie IS exhibition. Created by the Victoria & Albert Museum, David Bowie IS has very successfully toured the world and is currently on display in Groningen, the Netherlands.
Surely there is plenty of Jackson material to exhibit, as the Michael Jackson Estate owns warehouses full of Jackson’s personal items. Together with his drawings and paintings, this could form an interesting tribute to Jackson’s lifelong dedication to art in its various forms.
Until that day, however, Kunstwerke von Michael Jackson offers a chance to become acquainted with Jackson’s explorations in fine art. The high-quality photographs of his sketches and drawings make this publication worthwhile, even for those who do not speak German. Art, after all, speaks many languages.
© Annemarie Latour