Getty
Show Hide image

A Martian up a ladder throwing paint at a canvas

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched.

Art, David Bowie once told the New York Times, “has always been for me a stable nourishment”. You don’t think of stability with the Thin White Duke, locked in a room in Los Angeles or Berlin, the blinds pulled down, living off cocaine and frightening himself half to death with forays into black magic. All the same, art permeated everything he ever did, a source of succour and reliable inspiration, one of the few constants in his restless, roving life.

The only O-level he got was art, and like many glam rockers and proto-punks he did the obligatory stint at art school, too. Bowie didn’t stick around, though, abandoning Croydon College in the early 1960s in favour of making dogged stabs at rock stardom. When this didn’t seem to work he backed away from music, spending a couple of years studying and performing with the visionary mime artist Lindsay Kemp. It was Kemp who introduced him to some of his most lasting influences, including kabuki theatre, and who helped him develop a captivatingly visual, physical dimension to his songs, bringing high art to bear on the disposable medium of pop.

In September 1971, just before the release of Hunky Dory, he went to New York to visit another hero: Andy Warhol, the consummate magician of the 20th century. Among the things Bowie got from Warhol were his permissive, prodigal mixing of high and low culture and his thrifty willingness to snatch inspiration from anywhere.

Bowie turned up at the Factory wearing white Oxford bags and yellow Mary Janes, a slouchy bibbety-bobbity hat pulled low over his long blond hair. He sang his homage “Andy Warhol” to the master (“Tie him up when he’s fast asleep/Send him on a pleasant cruise”), who was reportedly not wholly flattered. Then he performed an earnest mime for the nonplussed Warhol in which he opened up his heart and let his guts spill on the floor.

It spoke, perhaps, of what was to come: the annihilating effects of serious, cult-level fame; the sense of being haunted by his own creations, of careering with them into places inimical to physical and mental health. Bowie was always willing to take a risk, to expose himself, to go further out than anyone else might have thought possible. Album after album wore its influences on its sleeve: the avant-garde German expressionism of Heroes and Low, the Chatterton-meets-Beau Brummell lushness of The Man Who Sold the World.

Like many other rock stars, he started collecting art, including a pair of Tintorettos, a Rubens and a Frank Auerbach. But at some point in the 1980s he began making it, too. He’d got himself stuck creatively, and as a way of edging out of the doldrums he switched media, using painting as a way of swimming back to himself. At first it was a private business, a respite and release from music, and then a fertile way of solving problems and nudging around blocks.

Always exceptionally courageous in his reinventions, he made this aspect of his life public in 1994 when he first exhibited his expressionistic, interestingly static and melancholy paintings at the Flowers East gallery in London for War Child, the charity backed by his friend and collaborator Brian Eno. By this time he was already part of the art establishment. He was on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters, where at an early meeting he had shyly suggested that he might interview the painter Balthus, then a neighbour in Switzerland. This was followed by serious, knowledgeable interviews with other contemporary artists, among them Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel.

Bowie was an inveterate collaborator; among the many works he created with other artists is a painting made with Hirst. (“He encouraged me to dress up like a Martian, stand on a ladder and throw paint at a spinning canvas. I had a ball. I felt like I was three years old again.”) In 1997 he co-founded 21, a publisher of art books. Among its first ventures was Nat Tate by William Boyd, a hoax biography of an imaginary painter that suckered much of the art world in a typically playful piece of Bowie subterfuge.

In 1996 he played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat. Much is made of Bowie’s inability to act, but there is something almost eerie about how well he embodies Andy, with his spacy intonation and awkward grace. It’s a loving homage, circling back to his own youthful ambitions.

Bowie never stopped collaborating, never stopped travelling between media, walking through walls with a light-footedness that few have ever matched. One of his last great songs was “Where Are We Now?”, a plaintive, heartbreakingly spare hymn to ageing, to abiding loss and abiding love. The video, directed by Tony Oursler, is set in an artist’s studio, that site of rigorous and messy transformation, Bowie’s psychic home throughout the years. “As long as there’s me,” he sings, his face lined and sorrowful. “As long as there’s you.”

Well, there is no him now; only the ­record of those impossible, breathtaking, seemingly endless transformations. Ch-ch-ch-changes, as he once sang: the absolute essence of art.

Olivia Laing’s new book, “The Lonely City”, will be published in March by Canongate

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit