by Susie Finlay
There is something incongruous about the setting of 'Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait'. An exhibition held at the Jewish Museum in London, it is encircled by gallery spaces displaying stock images of wholesome Jewish family life, overseen by whiskery octogenarian guards. One can’t help but feel that this tribute to Amy Winehouse is somewhat out of place. It’s the equivalent of curating a Rubens exhibition in an East London warehouse. It strikes me as a jarring, almost disingenuous experience.
But this is the very essence of the exhibition. It attempts to re- contextualise Winehouse, removing her from the vast stage of celebrity, and, for want of a less cringe-inducing cliché: sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Instead, she is ushered by her brother and the curator of the exhibition, Alex Winehouse, into the arena of suburban family life. This ‘family portrait’ is the antithesis of the portrayal of Winehouse to which we have grown accustomed. The beehive is replaced with a schoolgirl ponytail. Plastered across a wall, in place of the network of disastrous boyfriends is a graphic of Winehouse’s convoluted family tree. Photos of Alex’s Bar-Mitzvah party replace those of raucous nights out in Camden. Behind a display case, Winehouse’s own liquor cabinet is filled with a heap of Puzzler magazines and sudoku books. Not a bottle in sight. Even the background music – Mickey Mouse Club and Frank Sinatra – emphasises the overarching dominance of family influence. Here is a certain attempt to reclaim a celebrity as a daughter. This is familial retaliation against contemporary tabloid coverage, against the scrutiny of the public gaze, and surely against Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy, which unforgivingly exposed the Winehouse family’s complicity in the drama of Amy’s life. Mitch Winehouse, her father, dubbed the film a ‘disgrace’.
I am reminded of John Berger’s seminal 1972 television series, Ways of Seeing, which was later adapted into a book of the same name. The introductory scene is most memorable. The viewer watches helplessly as Berger takes a knife and seemingly dismembers Botticelli’s Mars and Venus. The isolated section of the painting he has just cut out then appears on the screen as a postcard reproduction. Berger’s point is that the context of the image is imperative. Pinning the reproduction on a corkboard in my room surrounded by other postcards, souvenirs and photos would totally mutate the original meaning of the Botticelli. ’Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning.’ Using the example of the icon, Berger elaborates upon this idea. The icon is holy not merely in itself, but also because of its religious setting. To a certain extent, the icon itself is a blank canvas. Its meaning is derived from its surroundings.
Winehouse too is an icon. Though there is perhaps an attempt to make Amy a standard bearer for her religion in the exhibition’s emphasis on her Jewish heritage, I don’t mean ‘icon’ in a religious sense. But as a pop-icon, she represents a modern day equivalent. As the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris encases fragments of the Cross and Holy Crown, the admittedly less ornate display cases of the Jewish Museum seal away her guitar, Louboutin stilettos and well-thumbed Claudia Roden cookbook. Amy’s personal belongings are a contemporary saint’s relics. The stenciled image of Winehouse by street-artist Pegasus is iconography. And a visit to the exhibition becomes pilgrimage. Like Berger’s Byzantine icon, Amy’s meaning is transmutable. Framed by paparazzi snapshots of wild nights out, Winehouse is drunken mess. Framed by the commentary of Kapadia’s documentary she is a tragic victim. But equally, framed by text and mementos particularly selected by members of her family, and even through their choice of museum, she is ‘simply a little Jewish kid from North London.’ Like all representations of Amy, the exhibition is heavily curated. I find myself considering what was left out of the glass cabinets by Alex Winehouse. A slight alteration in the selection of items on display would utterly transform the impression of Amy that we are led to absorb.
Yet however sceptical I might be towards the objectivity of this particular portrayal, I find myself drawn to it. For me, there is something comforting in the dogged mundanity of exhibition and in the persistence of Alex Winehouse to present his sister as merely a Jewish kid from North London, because it is to that dimension of Winehouse which I relate and it is there that I recognise myself. As much as icons might entrance us in their immortal unattainability, their humanity is equally attractive. This attempt of the audience to reclaim the subject in our own context is clarified by a wall of Post-it notes, upon which visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to jot down what Amy means to them. Someone, presumably from the area, dubs her a ‘Camden Queen’. Another remembers when they heard her sing live. Someone else has written that Amy once signed her guitar. The celebrity is essentially transformed into public property, as different parties project onto the icon their own contexts and perceptions of the individual.
And so I come away from the exhibition feeling unsettled. The brash, unashamed confidence with which we displace Winehouse, subverting her to fit our own requirements, seems to me a violation of her identity. The lyrics of 'What Is It about Men' resonate: ‘I don't care 'bout what you got, I want it all’. Greedily, we have transformed a highly idiosyncratic poet and musician into something faceless.
SUSIE FINLAY reads History and French at Queen's. She has a penchant for kitsch Soviet propaganda and pickled gherkins.