Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
22 October 2017 - 25 March 2018
Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne
I have been utterly transfixed by the music and story of the late Amy Winehouse since mid-December 2017, when I saw Thando perform on a Thursday evening at the Jewish Museum of Australia as part of an impressive range of events accompanying its Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition. In February I attended the outstanding Amy Winehouse Tribute Concert at Memo Music Hall in St Kilda, which played host to some of the premier jazz and soul talents in Australia. My desire to know more about this unforgettable woman and talent drove me back to the exhibition for a second time. Created in 2013 and curated by Amy’s brother Alex Winehouse, the exhibition has toured successfully through Vienna, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and San Francisco, and leaves Melbourne in less than a week on March 25. Alex was adamant that the exhibition be held at the Jewish Museum of Australia, and for good reason.
A Family Portrait is featured alongside The First Waves – Russian Jewish Migration, 1881-1922, which explores the parallel migration of Russian Jews to Australia. Both temporary exhibitions are displayed against the backdrop of the permanent features of the Jewish Museum, which helps us to appreciate the scale and variety of Jewish stories across time and space. The permanent and temporary exhibitions flow into one another seamlessly. Moving down the corridors from the deep history of the Jewish people to Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, one is encouraged to reflect on the relationship between the individual and the ineluctable historical forces which shape us.
With such perspective, one comes to view Amy’s Family Portrait as but one flourishing and tragic human story amidst the millions of others throughout history. This is poignant, since Jacques Wengrow’s The Holocaust sits metres from the entrance to Amy’s exhibition. The haunting and arresting painting depicts over 6,000 anonymous figures as a memorial to the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah. This caused me to reflect on Isaiah 51:12, where humans are said to “wither like the grass and disappear”. Given what I have described above about historical forces, perhaps another analogy to understand the transience of human existence is the Tree of Life, in which individual human lives are like leaves blooming and wilting with the seasons; determined and sustained by the roots, trunk and branches of culture, religion, ethnicity, language, and so on.
Walking up the steps of the Museum on Alma Rd (fittingly, Spanish for soul), I was immediately struck by the glowing Mediterranean beauty of Amy’s visage, probably informed by her Belarusian Ashkenazi Jewish extraction. Set against the St Kilda palm fronds, Amy resembled a modern-day Cleopatra, resplendent with her bronzed skin, black hair, and depending on the light, her olive green, hazel or even golden eyes.
When entering the exhibit, it is instructive to bear in mind James Salter’s reflection from his 1997 memoir “Burning the Days” as an interpretive metaphor for understanding the genius of this exhibition, and how it all hangs together within the Museum:
If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen”.
Gazing upon the family portraits on the wall upon entering the exhibition, one has the almost-uncomfortable sense of fossicking about a family’s unattended living room, poring over private photo albums and polaroids which have been unseen for decades. Vividly colourful displays pop out from hospital-white walls, while a soundtrack inspired by Amy’s “Chill Out Tape” plays unobtrusively in the background. The overall effect is of entering a dreamscape, in which time has stood still. It is in this sense that one can appreciate A Family Portrait as part of the Winehouse family’s grieving process; a kind of extended Kaddish. It’s hard to hold back tears while wandering through this beautiful garden of memories dripping with the dew of nostalgia and vulnerability. This is how the Winehouse family remember their little girl before she dropped from the Tree in the full flourishing of her spring and summer, never to know the autumn and winter of life’s journey.
Set in the curved corner of the Museum, we are stepped chronologically through vignettes of Amy’s life, made sweeter and more powerful by reminiscence and the passing of time. At the beginning is a suitcase full of beautiful polaroids and kodak prints which Amy had hoarded from various family members over the years, which she was examining in the days before her death on 23 July 2011. The next station we come to is a sprawling family tree, which throws into high relief the intermingling continuum of disparate histories and geographies that combined to form Amy and her family. Below the family tree sits Amy’s school tie and jumper from Osidge, almost as if it was prepared for the first day of the school year. Adjacent is Roden’s ‘The Book of Jewish Food’ with an excerpted recipe for chicken noodle soup, once requested by Amy, and poorly made. (Unlike her meatballs, we are told). We learn that Amy’s great grandfather Harris Winehouse (Weinhaus) came to London from Minsk, Belarus by mistake in 1890, and that she loved Snoopy, Dr Seuss, and Postman Pat.
Moving from the historical and geographical contextualisation of the exhibition, we come to the vignettes which focus on Amy’s musical influences. Inset in a stunningly soft pink alcove is Amy’s favourite guitar, along with her music collection. We are informed that Amy developed her love of vinyl from her mother, and that she spent hours in Camden record stores. It is always instructive to read about an artist’s musical influences, but quite another thing to cast one’s eyes on the very CDs and vinyls which they spent hours listening to. In attendance are Quincy Jones’ Big Bad Bossa Nova, Bobby Darin’s That’s All, an album from Dinah Washington and plenty of Ray Charles. Once realised, one cannot but hear these influences coursing through Amy’s catalogue.
A function of the family-oriented nature of the exhibition is that it fosters an understanding of how we are continually shaped and influenced by others, particularly our families. Beneath Thelonious Monk’s At The Black Hawk sits this beautiful quote from Amy in 2006:
my brother started listening to jazz when he was about 18 and I was 14, and I just remember the first time I ever heard ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk through the wall, and I was just like: ‘what is that?’ I’ll never forget that.
Life is stochastic. Just as Harris Winehouse settled in London by mistake, so too did Amy discover jazz by chance, seemingly because of her brother’s musical taste. We therefore not only appreciate how the Winehouse family developed in relation to the deep histories of the Jewish people and diaspora, but also how Amy was shaped in relation to her family. This is a deeply humbling notion which helps us to understand the fragility and interconnectedness of all things.
Powerfully, a quote from her 1997 audition essay to join the Sylvia Young Theatre School overlooks the a glassed-off display of wrist bands, tickets and passes to her shows – all taken after the release of Frank (2003) up until the global success of Back to Black in 2006:
but mostly I have this dream to be very famous. To work on stage. It’s a lifelong ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just forget their troubles for five minutes.
And so they did, and still do. The penultimate section of the exhibition surveys Amy at the height of her powers as a fashion icon and, as described by the BBC, ‘the pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation’. This section teases out the duality of the public and private selves. Beneath a quote from 2010 “I still dress like it’s the 50s”, we see the famous navy blue sequined Luella dress from Glastonbury, and the Christian Louboutin shoes. Amy’s tattoos, designed by Henry Hate, are also explained with tenderness as references ‘to her life and loves’. The most memorable on her right arm is described as a tribute to her nan Cynthia and her eternal youthfulness and ‘va va voom’. We are invited into Amy’s library, and see how she read Dostoevsky, Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear, and learn how she loved all things vintage and retro, collecting fridge magnets and transistor radios. Quirky little things, which each of us could list about our own siblings and family.
The final stages of the exhibit include a posthumous Grammy from her Body and Soul duet with Tony Bennett, adjacent to two beautiful bird cages which Amy owned (sans birds, except for one short-lived canary). The symbol of the uncaged bird informed the logo of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which has carried on the good but relatively unknown charitable works that Amy did while living.
What is left out of the display is as profound as what is included. There are no images of Blake Civil-Fielder, who in many ways both made and destroyed Amy. There are no pictures of the skeletal and slack-jawed Amy after she was ravaged by her addiction to cigarettes, drugs and alcohol; after she began to decay inside and out through a host of mental and physical illnesses, most visibly anorexia and bulimia, but also invisibly through early-stage emphysema.
One steps out of the main room of the exhibition and into a final alcove with two rows of benches, in front of a small projector screen playing on repeat Amy’s otherworldly rendition of Back to Black in a church in Ireland. It’s incredibly moving when one considers it with reference to the final quote printed on the wall by the exit, again taken from her Sylvia Young audition essay:
I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer, for sell out concerts and sell out west end and broadway shows. For being just... me
We are so accustomed to hearing about Amy as described above: in flashing lights, at the sell-out concerts, and through the ill-repute generated from the ravenous paparazzi and gossip magazines documenting her downward spiral and self-destruction. What this exhibit has encouraged us to do instead is to honour the wish of that 14-year-old girl, to remember her as ‘me’. The final video of the exhibition brings together all that we have learned about Amy and her family’s precious private life and reconnects us with how we all invariably came to know her, through the indescribably sublime and transcendent power of her voice.
Which 21st century artist has distilled and articulated the vulnerabilities and vagaries of love as she did? Which other 17-year old could sing about the youthful exuberance of adolescent independence and aversion to romance as she did in My Own Way, echoing Sinatra? Who could then sing at 20 on Jools Holland, and with such maturity, of the terminal frustrations of long-term relationships and the complexities of gender roles in Stronger Than Me? Who else could, at 26, encapsulate the utter devastation of a break-up as Amy does in Wake Up Alone? ‘He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts / He floats me with dread / Soaked in soul / He swims in my eyes by the bed”? Even through their death, who else could render the words of A Song For You with more extraordinarily beautiful and eternal meaning? "And when my life is over / Remember when we were together / We were alone / And I was singing this song to you / I love you in a place / Where there's no space or time"
The answer is no one. And so we are left to leave the exhibition contemplating the tragedy of this loss, and the irreversible silencing of this great human voice. The mind boggles at the fortuitous and unrepeatable randomness that went into the making of Amy Winehouse, especially when we consider the full sweep of Jewish history and her own family story. This uniquely beautiful person who felt so deeply, loved so intensely, shone so brightly, and then was gone.
Stronger Than Me, 2003