Stepmonster

Reaching to the core of the stepmother experience

The Return of the Repressed: Amy Winehouse and Lucian Freud

Pathologizing Winehouse is easy, even inevitable, in spite of her gift

Unsurprisingly, obits and other meditations on deceased singer and pop culture cynosure Amy Winehouse have focused on her addictions, her artistic genius, and her not-so-slow downward spiral. A drug user and alcoholic, for a time enmeshed with a man who fueled her self destruction, Winehouse seemed to exist in syncopation with her own songs: unsustainable manic high notes and killer lows, sung in a voice without peer or, arguably, precedent.

Famous for proclaiming she had said "No" to rehab in a top ten hit, Winehouse might be seen to have been in control of her fate and her artistic arc. She was not. We have only to compare her to Madonna and Lady Gaga, who demonstrate a kind of ruthless, disciplined determination alongside their artistic gifts and seemingly innate ability to scandalize to see Winehouse as equal parts amazing talent and hapless twenty-something girl from hard-living hell. Our Romantic ideology of artists and artistic production pivots on the presumption that the great will be tormented and will die young. Winehouse, with her Grammy wins, her confounding of categories and her affinity for spectacle, lived out this legacy to the letter, dying at 27. But while we are used to a Byron, a Keats, a Rimbaud, a River Phoenix crashing and burning, it has been a while since a young woman burned so brightly and fell so fast, so far.

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Stick thin and increasingly incoherent when she wasn't singing and sometimes even when she was, Winehouse was a kind of anti-Beyonce, booed off the stage in Serbia recently when she could not remember the lyrics to her songs. Prior to that, she had infamously informed the press that, when it came to her vagina, she preferred the term "va-jew-jew" to va-jay-jay. Winehouse was a tatted Jewish girl with a bouffant and a voice that had been around the block, part Ronette and part junkie, a hybrid who gave the black boot to British decorum more forcefully than anyone since the Sex Pistols. Her affinity for spectacle was uniquely female; that affinity and her abjection--drunk, high, stumbling, disheveled, brilliant--both telegraphed and concealed her genius.

While many consider the role addiction, brain chemistry, and bipolar disorder played in Winehouse's sad demise, less has been said about the fact that she was a young woman who said "F*ck you" to the music industry, her fans, and her own fame repeatedly, repudiating the role of mainstream celebrity for something messier, darker, and infinitely more dangerous. Pathologizing Winehouse is easy, virtually inevitable, in spite of (and perhaps also because of) her great and squandered gift--and her gender. So is enshrining her as a tortured female artist borrowing from the playbook of great male ones.

This is the place where Winehouse intersects with her fellow countryman Lucian Freud, who died just days before she did. Freud helped write the book that Winehouse seemingly read from. Eccentric, intensely committed to his craft, fiercely private, a compulsive gambler and womanizer, Freud managed to hold at bay the description that dogs Winehouse--"addict"--through, perhaps, the sheer force of his brush and the decades for which he deployed it. With it, this grandson of Sigmund Freud (who encouraged the boy's interest in painting by giving him a gift of prints of Brueghel paintings when he was young) painted portraits that harken back to the senior Freud's case studies in uncanny ways.

Compared to Rembrandt, a peer of Francis Bacon, frequently called the greatest painter of his generation, Lucian Freud was a realist and portraitist who managed to break those conventions wide open. The subjects of his paintings often sat for hours a day, for weeks on end, and the effect was that they "broke down," becoming exhausted, undefended versions of themselves, revealing something of their interiority seldom seen in figurative art. His nudes seemed truly naked--more than once Freud painted obese homosexuals, saying he admired their bravery--and often beyond intimate. Art critic John Russell explains Freud's oeuvre as "making us wonder whether we have any right to be there at all."

Freud's portrait of Queen Elizabeth, painted from 2000 to 2001, set off a furor, portraying the monarch with unsentimental brushstrokes so that she seemed part monarch, part power-mongering drag queen. Freud did not lie when he said he viewed his painting process as "a kind of truth-telling exercise." Like his grandfather Sigmund, Lucian Freud managed to reveal what was beneath the surface of our civilized and cultured selves, to show how the tamed and the untamed work in tandem to make us who we are as individuals and a society.

Freud's tempestuous personal life is part of his legend--he was married twice but had dozens of liasons and a number of children out of wedlock. But his artistic output--consistent, prolific, even obsessive--and arguably his gender has bought him a place in art history and the history of artistic genius that Winehouse did not have time to carve out for herself. We knew she--the bad girl, interrupted--was good, even when she insisted that we knew that she wasn't.

 

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is the author of the book Stepmonster.

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