David Bowie was an artistic soul in every sense of the term. The Starman made some of the sweetest and most eclectic music in existence, but the music was not the only art form that he held a deep passion towards. While Bowie was an actor who appeared in numerous films, he also held a love for art in its most traditional sense and found a source of escapism through paintings, whether he practised it himself or took refuge in somebody else’s work.
Bowie was a keen painter and artist since his youth, a time when he enrolled at Croyden College Of Art. This love remained constant throughout his life and adulthood. Art was a saviour for him after he lost years to cocaine and debauchery in the 1970s and, during a period when he decided to move to Lake Geneva in Swiss Alps in 1976, art became his new-found focus and helped him rebalance his life. Bowie spent days on end devoting his time to painting, and his art had a post-modernist feel to them, which expressed how he was feeling in a way that he simply couldn’t do with his music.
This period made him fall back in love with art. It then played a key role in his life and was a tonic to the hustle and bustle around him. Whenever he was on tour, Bowie brought a notebook that he sketched in. The first painting he sold was in 1990, the piece fetched $500, and he also painted the self-portrait for his album cover for 1995’s Outside. In 1998, Bowie even joined the journal Modern Painters’ editorial board. In that same year, he opened up to the New York Times about some of his favourite artists.
“I have a couple of Tintoretto’s, which I’ve had for many, many years,” Bowie revealed. “I have a Rubens. Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way that I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through. For instance, somebody I like very much indeed is Frank Auerbach.”
He added: “I think there are some mornings that if we hit each other a certain way — myself and a portrait by Auerbach — the work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through. It will give spiritual weight to my angst. Some mornings I’ll look at it and go: “Oh, God, yeah! I know!” But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist. I can look at it and say: “My God, yeah! I want to sound like that looks.”
Bowie also touched on what makes Damien Hirst such a unique artist in his eyes, noting: “He’s different. I think his work is extremely emotional, subjective, very tied up with his own personal fears — his fear of death is very strong — and I find his pieces moving and not at all flippant.
“He’s also one of the people who has helped to make art very accessible to the public in Britain in a way that has never really happened before, even at the height of the ’60s. You still had to go out of your way then to see work by Allen Jones or Hockney or whatever. Now it’s very easy to pop out on the weekend and see some good art nearly anywhere in Britain. And I notice that the crowds that go to museums and galleries these days seem a lot younger than they ever were.”
Another area of art that Bowie held a strong interest in was German Expressionism, adding: “I had a thing for Murnau and Fritz Lang. Grosz was too direct for me. I always want a certain abstraction. Art should be open enough for me to develop my own dialogue with it.”
Bowie then profoundly spoke about how art saved his musical career after he admits a lull in his creativity, after suddenly arriving at middle age and unsure where to take himself. “Soon as I hit 40, it all went wrong. When I hit 1987, it just seemed that nothing worked for me musically,” Bowie honestly professed,” he said.
“I’d lost the plot. It really felt bad. I felt awful with myself as an artist. And I probably started working on the visual side of things really quite desperately to find some salvation as an artist. And then during the very early ’90s, I found my way slowly back into music again. Now in music, I feel fulfilled, hopefully not self-satisfied, by what I’m doing.”
Art was there for Bowie in his lowest moments and was a way that he could express himself when music was the last thing on his mind. The escapism that came with creating art differently than he made his living, without all the pressure that came with being David Bowie was liberating and helped make him recapture his greatness from a musical perspective.