Usually my response to people claiming Bowie was a plagiarist is to roll my eyes and figure they’re just jealous: They saw the same things he did but weren’t creative enough to do what he did with the material. I still think that.
But last month at the Bowie Is exhibition in Brooklyn, looking at all his sketches and mock-ups and mood boards, all the Polaroids taken to record this or that approach to makeup and lighting, the hand-sketched storyboards for his videos–all the backstory, basically, of his album covers, costumes, lyrics and looks over the decades–it hit me: He wasn’t plagiarizing. He was dreaming.
His creative process was to enter the dream state while wide awake. All the debris of everything he’d ever seen or read or heard, every passing phrase or color glimpsed or thing remembered from childhood, streamed through his imagination. He grabbed pieces here and there–a photo of suburban London in 1958, a pair of shoes a friend once wore, a phrase overheard at a bus stop, a play of light he once saw on a kimono in Japan–and recombined them into something new, just like dreams do.
For instance, at Bowie Is, you discover some of the backstory to this album cover (“Tonight,” 1984):
In the original chalk-on-black-paper drawing of his face, which is on display at Bowie Is, he wasn’t blue but green, the same shade as the Chinese woman in Vladimir Tretchikoff’s 1951 painting “The Chinese Girl” (which, at Bowie Is, is right next to the album artwork):
That painting, so the web tells me, was a massively popular print that hung in thousands if not millions of British homes in the 1950s–so presumably Bowie saw it then. It was the first flash, in grim, grey post-war England, of color and luxury and beautiful foreign worlds. The odd coloring presaged Warhol and injected a glimpse of modern cool into London’s worn-out rubble. Tretchikoff was one of the first artists to target everyday people, rather than art critics (who hated his stuff); he exhibited in department stores.
Wait. A flash of exotic color in grim and boring England, a glimpse of modern cool, a portal to a world much more interesting than this one, an artist reaching out to “all the nobody people”… Sound like anyone we know? As Bono said, “He was so vivid. So luminous. So fluorescent…. David Bowie was the reason to have a color TV. With Bowie, you had this sneaking suspicion that if you hung around him, you might find some doors into those other worlds.”
Ok, but what’s with the blue face? Where did that come from? Well, Bowie painted a few portraits of his friend Iggy Pop when they lived together in Berlin in the 1970s. This one–a three-quarter view headshot of Pop looking up, which if we’re going to spell it out is compositionally a lot like the “Tonight” cover–is at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, in the next room over from the “Tonight” artwork:
And Iggy Pop worked on “Tonight” with Bowie. So that’s an obvious contender for inspiration, as is Picasso’s blue period, when he painted a few portraits of people with blue-grey skin like Iggy’s here. But the cobalt shade points to another inspiration, too. Bowie’s face on “Tonight” is a shade of blue you see in medieval stained glass; Chartres blue is the most famous example. Colors like that weren’t used again in stained glass for five hundred years, until a resurgence in the 19th century–the beginning of the modern age.
Bowie loved medieval art, (serious) moonlighted as an art journalist, collected art from Tintoretto to the 21st century, founded an art publishing company, and was an obsessive autodidact who would’ve richly deserved an honorary PhD in art history. And obviously, he was European; he’d seen a few medieval cathedrals in his time.
And speaking of stained glass, if at first glance it looks like Bowie just took the embroidered golden dress from Tretchikoff’s painting and redesigned it as the background for his album cover, think again. Or look again, at some of Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows in the 1962 Windows of Jerusalem series:
The jewel tones, the black-lined squares–there they are, from Chagall straight to “Tonight”! Ok, but why? I can think of a ton of reasons, but as with dream interpretations, who knows which (if any) are true: Chagall, like the Eventide Harmonizer that Tony Visconti convinced Bowie to use on Low, “fucked with the fabric of time” (as Visconti put it, to Bowie’s delight) by combining modern art with the ancient genre of stained-glass windows. His windows, made less than 20 years after the end of World War II, looked like the shattered pieces of Old Europe–not just figuratively shattered, but literally, church windows blown apart by bombs–put back together in a completely new way. This is all very Bowie.
But what about the flowers on “Tonight”? To me they look like a modern, faux stained-glass (the black outlines) version of medieval “millefleurs” (thousand-flowers) tapestries like the Lady and the Unicorn–portraits on a background of flowers:
A modern take on a medieval genre (Bowie once again fucking with the fabric of time). A Christian genre combined with a Jewish artist’s stained-glass windows, which hang in a synagogue in Jerusalem (Bowie, as ever, crossing every boundary there is and giving the finger to tribalism). A portrait of a man (Bowie on “Tonight”) in a genre (millefleurs) and style (“The Chinese Girl”) previously used for portraits of women: Bowie, as usual, erasing the gender divide.
So those are the pieces of the “Tonight” cover, and I’m sure there are more the Brooklyn Museum and I haven’t thought of. Those are the stray fragments that Bowie remade into a whole new piece of art. The only difference between that process and dreaming is that the result exists on objects in the world that everyone can look at. Bowie was a dreamer who left his dreams here for us to see.
And just for the record, that’s not plagiarism. That’s art.