REVEALED: KURT COBAIN'S ORIGINAL ARTWORK
A dark look into the mind of Nirvana’s tortured frontman
by Daryl Mersom
Kurt Cobain remains the only true icon of the post punk age. As the title of Brett Morgen’s recent documentary ‘Montage of Heck’ reveals, the montage was essential to Cobain’s aesthetic. Having led an extraordinary life - from an angst-ridden genius kid, turned brilliant drug addicted rock star, we continue to debate the nature of his suicide and his disturbing lyrics. Although known mostly for his musical accomplishments, Cobain was also a gifted visual artist. Many of his art works were created during a tender childhood consisting of innocent drawings and symbolic macabre paintings that were closely connected to his later troubled home life. Yet it’s the rich symbolism in his art that holds the potential to illuminate the singer’s life in new ways.
As we take a glance at Cobain’s artwork it is the symbolism that stands out for me: the tree, cross, seahorse and fetus. These symbols pervade the paintings and it is high time that we consider the way in which they link to Cobain’s life story. The tree symbol appears in the music video for ‘Heart-shaped box’ where there is an anthropomorphic wood, which surrounds the band in a way that recalls Dante’s wood in the ‘Inferno’. There is evidence that Cobain made this association to Dante when we recall that the back cover of ‘Nevermind’ features images of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ Is the artist foreshadowing the contentious issue of his own death by including the allusion to Dante where the men have been turned into trees for committing suicide? It strikes me that the symbols of the cross and tree are used in the music video to create a sort of non-linear montage which point forward and back; both foreshadowing the details of Cobain’s own death and recalling the suffering of Christ.
The recurrence of the seahorse and sperm symbols might be better understood by another master of the non-linear montage: William S. Burroughs, who Cobain asked to play the Crucified man in ‘Heart-shaped box.’ When the pages of his novel ‘Naked Lunch’ are said to have fallen out of his briefcase he simply reshuffled them and put them back in with no regards to their order. Burroughs said that the novel could be opened on any page and still make sense. This non-linearity is evident in the collaboration between Keith Haring and William Burroughs titled ‘Apocalypse.’ The art work, which is currently, valued at over twenty thousand pounds features sperm and sea creatures, which are reminiscent of Cobain’s work. In the frames, ‘A’ comes third place after two other images and disrupts the expected alphabetical order. These tantalizing biographical and symbolic connections force us to reconsider Cobain as an artist.
As we remember the innocent child inside the drug addicted Cobain, in this piece of his hanged fetus on the tree provides an exaggerated symbol of a man who, due to drugs, died before his time; a symbol to conjure with at Nirvana séances. Whilst the many symbols in the paintings take us into a dark wood of tangled and conflicting meanings the fetus on the tree offers a stark image of premature death which I would struggle to interpret in another way. For me, these troubling artifacts have helped shed a new light on the innocence in Cobain, and revealed a more gentle side of the troubled genius who was the very embodiment of fallen angels, one of those creatures whose trajectory was as brief as it was brilliant.