Tag Archives: The Guardian

Joni Mitchell paintings: #1 album covers – the studio albums

Joni Mitchell paintings on box set

Joni Mitchell paintings enrich the covers of six of her first ten albums © Joni Mitchell/Rhino 2012

Joni Mitchell paintings enrich the majority of her album covers. So they are the most-seen and easily the most widely-owned artworks by any rock musician/painter.

Joni Mitchell paintings have probably been seen by more people than the artwork of the other leading rock musician/artists – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), Miles Davis and John Lennon – combined.

And while some of her peers might be described as hobby painters, Joni Mitchell takes her art very seriously indeed: “I’m a painter first, and a musician second” (1998)… “I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstances” (2000).

Joni Mitchell paintings: the early albums

The album covers of the first three Joni Mitchell releases all feature impressive paintings, heralding a fresh young talent, visually as well as musically.

Song to a Seagull (1968)’s bright flowers evoke a hippy era of unwarranted optimism; the wrap-round album cover stakes Joni’s claim as a botanical artist.

Clouds (1969) has an accomplished self-portrait – it’s probably the most familiar of all Joni Mitchell paintings, as well as one of the most exquisite.

Ladies Of The Canyon (1970) has a masterful, minimal line-drawn self-portrait plus an idealised fragment of leafy LA suburbia. It’s one of my favourite Joni Mitchell paintings.

The Joni Mitchell paintings on these first  three album covers are as impressive as most of the music within.

Joni Mitchell paintings: the peak period albums

Only three of the 1970s LPs – widely regarded as the Canadian musician’s peak recordings – employ Joni Mitchell paintings as album covers.

Court And Spark (1974) has a little semi-abstract work on the front cover. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) has an altogether more impressive surrealist tableau, appearing to document a “primitive” civilisation rubbing up against the edge of a modern city.

The lesser-known artworks which illustrate Mingus (1979) are among my favourite artworks by Joni Mitchell. The CD has two memorable paintings, the abstract front cover, with its subtle blend of colour, plus the back cover rear view portrait of an ailing Charles Mingus, seated in in a wheelchair.

The original LP cover also has a stunning large-scale portrait of Mingus. You can feel the pain of an old man slowly slipping into the next world. And you sense that Joni Mitchell painted it out of reverence. It’s probably the most arresting Joni Mitchell painting of all.

Mingus - one of the most striking Joni Mitchell paintings

Charles Mingus in the Joni Mitchell painting on her Mingus LP © Joni Mitchell/Asylum 1979

The remaining releases from the singer’s 1970s peak – Blue (1971), For The Roses (1972), Hejira (1976) and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) – don’t use Joni Mitchell paintings, though Mitchell was involved in the design of the album covers.

Joni Mitchell paintings: the Geffen albums

Two of the four (unfairly derided) Geffen albums use Joni Mitchell paintings. Wild Things Run Fast (1982) has one of the most comprehensive collections of her artwork. The CD’s front/back wrap-round cover, showing Mitchell leaning on a television set with wild white horses galloping through water (the Camargue in France’s Bouches-du-Rhone?) confirms Mitchell’s technical prowess as a draughtswoman. No need for Joni Mitchell to hide limited technique behind an Expressionist style!

Wild Things Run Fast - one of the best collections of Joni Mitchell paintings

Joni Mitchell painting – the cover of Wild Things Run Fast © Joni Mitchell/Geffen 1982

The three artworks inside the CD booklet – a two-shot portrait of Mitchell and friend, a close-up of the white horses and a still life incorporating Matisse’s The Dance – strengthen Joni Mitchell’s claim to be regarded as the finest painter from rock music.

The claim is supported by the wrap-round cover of Dog Eat Dog (1985), with Mitchell’s threatening wild canines superimposed on an expressive photograph of the singer, clearly unsettled by their presence.

Chalk Mark in A Rain Storm (1988) has no Joni Mitchell paintings, though the singer gets a design credit. Night Ride Home (1991) has no Joni Mitchell painting, either; she is credited with photography and art direction.

Joni Mitchell paintings: the later albums

The later albums have strong Joni Mitchell paintings.  Turbulent Indigo (1994) has the witty spoof of Mitchell as Van Gogh, ear bandaged, on the front cover. The CD booklet has five more paintings, mainly dramatic landscapes with one domestic scene, of a dining table in a sunlit garden.

Taming The Tiger (1998)’s front cover self-portrait of Mitchell with cat, is complemented by a back cover with a cat plus a framed landscape. The CD booklet has eight varied canvases – self-portrait, people, cats, deer and landscapes. It would feature among my favourite collections of Joni Mitchell paintings – if I could overcome my allergy, nay aversion, to cats. The mere sight of the felines on this CD artwork gets me scratching imaginary itches and sneezing. Which, I suppose, indicates that the art works!

Both Sides Now (2000) has another strong collection of Joni Mitchell paintings. The two self-portraits, the front view of Mitchell seated at a bar with cigarette and glass of wine and the back view of the same pose, are remarkable studies.

Both Sides Now has some striking Joni Mitchell paintings

Self-portrait by Joni Mitchell on the cover of Both Sides Now © Joni Mitchell/Reprise 2000

The CD booklet artwork depicts detail of cigarette smoke; Ms Mitchell and lover engaging in tongue-based sexual foreplay in front of an autumnal lake, framed by a rainbow; and a still life of flowers, plus a small framed picture of a male friend. I particularly like the humour of the additional back view shot, pulled out to reveal a NO SMOKING sign, being ignored, if not challenged, by Mitchell. A commendable independence of spirit, even in support of an ill-judged cause.

Joni Mitchell paintings: critical views

Jonathan Jones, art critic of The Guardian, the influential London daily newspaper, after dismissing several other rock artists as celebrity show-offs, picks out Mitchell as one of the most accomplished, a creator of art with style – “paintings that are worth a second look… perhaps a third… making art that really matters to her…”.

I concur.  Joni Mitchell paintings are among the finest by any rock musician.  Her paintings reveal an enviable talent.  She is technically gifted.  Her range is wide, encompassing portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, animals, still lifes as well as abstracts.  Her subtle colour palette is engaging and pleasing.  In sum, her painting has a unique style and worldview.

Some rock critics, generally less attuned to visual art, dismiss Joni Mitchell paintings. Here, for example, is Sean Nelson, in his generally laudable guide, Court and Spark (Continuum, 2007): “… self-portraiture that bedevilled her cover art in the 90s and beyond… increasingly humorless, wincingly self-involved paintings that adorn the booklets of Taming the Tiger, Both Sides Now, Travelogue, The Beginning of Survival, and Dreamland… .”

Joni Mitchell paintings: the studio albums – conclusions

If you consider Joni Mitchell paintings to be near the front of the rock art pack; if you also believe that her lyrics are bettered by very few (only Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in my book); and if you judge her as one of the most gifted musicians of her era, then you have to conclude that Joni Mitchell is rather more than “a leading female singer-songwriter”: she numbers among the elite of twentieth century creatives.

Mitchell’s all-round artistic control of all aspects of her album releases, unusual in popular music, elevates Joni Mitchell’s creative achievement well above that of any other rock musician; you could argue that it earns her a place alongside polymaths like Richard Wagner, the nineteenth century opera composer.

What do you think of Joni Mitchell paintings?  Which is your favourite? Please let me know via Leave a Reply at the top of the post. Thanks, in advance.

Copyrights: all images © Joni Mitchell and record labels; text © Gerald Smith, ROCK ART EDITIONS 2015. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.

Coming soon on ROCK ART EDITIONS: Joni Mitchell paintings: #2 album covers – compilations, live sets and DVDs.

Bob Dylan art “contemptible”, Paul McCartney’s “childish” – Q magazine on rockers who paint

Bob Dylan art

Bob Dylan art: Skip Sharpe, Face Value exhibition 2013. © Bob Dylan 2013

Bob Dylan art On The Face Of It: Skip Sharpe is “Contemptible.  Just rubbish”.  The portrait should not have been exhibited by the National Portrait Gallery, according to critic Brian Sewell, in his Pop Goes The Easel, a scathing survey of rock musicians who paint.

Sewell’s damning piece was published in Q magazine, November 2013, to coincide with the Face Value show of Bob Dylan art at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The critic goes on to lambast other rock-musicians-turned-painters. Artwork by Beatles bassist Paul McCartney is dismissed as “childish rubbish”. Edwyn Collins’ artwork shows promise… when judged as the work of a 14-year old! Daniel Johnston’s Captain America is “… just awful.  Utter, utter rubbish”.

Funny, that.  I like Bob Dylan art. I enjoyed the Bob Dylan Face Value exhibition, a small gallery of distinctive portraits. They successfully capture Dylan’s penetrating, sceptical, questioning worldview. My only criticism was that the show didn’t have enough Bo Dylan art.

Bob Dylan Face Value portrait, Skip Sharpe

Bob Dylan Face Value catalogue © National Portrait Gallery 2013

You can judge Face Value for yourself – the handsome, collectable catalogue, published by the National Portrait Gallery, London, is still widely available. I was also impressed by Paul McCartney: Paintings, the 1999 and 2000 catalogues of the Beatle’s artwork: I’m not keen on Macca’s music, but I do like his painting.

Brian Sewell is a celebrated London-based art critic known for his lively journalism and entertaining TV appearances. He tends not to, er, sit on the fence.

The dismissive tone in his Q article was echoed in the recent assessment of some rocker-painters by Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, covered here last week. (Bob Dylan art got off lightly.)

I’m collecting critical commentaries – positive and negative – on rock musicians who paint, to discuss on ROCK | ART | EDITIONS.  If you come across any critiques, please email me.

Bob Dylan art: good. Ronnie Wood art: not so good. Review of rock musicians who paint

A recent review of rock musicians who paint gives Bob Dylan the thumbs up. Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood isn’t so lucky.

Bob Dylan pastel portraits

Bob Dylan: Face Value, 2013 exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London. © Gerald Smith 2013

According to Jonathan Jones’s article in The Guardian newspaper (posted on 8 September 2014), Bob Dylan art has “a basic toughness and competence to it – some of his intelligence shines through… (his art) enriches his achievement as a myth maker.”

But “There is no point at all to Ronnie Wood’s art…”, according to Jones.

ROCK | ART | EDITIONS favourite Joni Mitchell has “a style as an artist… paintings that are worth a second look. Perhaps a third… is making art that really matters to her.” Paul Simonon (The Clash) also gets Jones’s seal of approval.

Not so Marilyn Manson (the painting reviewed is “…stupid and incompetent”) or Paul Stanley of Kiss (his sample painting is “dreck… rubbish”).

There’s no mention in the Guardian article of Miles Davis or Leonard Cohen, both highly regarded here, or even Don Van Vliet (aka Capt Beefheart), seen by many as the most accomplished rock muso painter.

Art critic Jonathan Jones certainly knows far more about art than me, so I find his views well worth considering – and I recommend you to read his article. Whether you share Jones’s views is, of course, entirely up to you.

How to judge rock art
I don’t believe there are any objective criteria for assessing a painting – or any other creative work, for that matter.

Being a successful musician doesn’t mean you’ll become the next Rembrandt if you pick up a paintbrush. But it probably means that your chances are slightly higher than the Average (less creative) Joe.

And a few top rockers are demonstrably multi-talented. You want to discuss Bob Dylan’s creativity across different media? How long have you got? Bob Dylan art? I love (much of) it.

Everyone judges a painting (or a piece of music) differently. I suspect that our initial response is emotional and that we then impose intellectual criteria as a secondary process, to validate emotional preferences.

When I start to think about a painting (… music… film… novel…) I usually ask:
* does the work evoke an emotional response?
* does it say anything worthwhile? of interest to me?
* is the execution good enough to let the above shine through?

Artists covered on ROCK | ART | EDITIONS
Judged by these criteria, most rock musicians covered in ROCK | ART | EDITIONS succeed as visual artists. So, I’ll continue to favour painters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simonon. Ronnie Wood – and even Marilyn Manson and Paul Stanley – will also be included.

I suspect you won’t be shy in letting me know if you think this is a misjudgment!