Amy in the wind

The Amy Winehouse exhibit at the Jewish Museum in London steers clear of the singer’s troubled life.

Amy Winehouse at home, 2003 (photo credit: MARKOKOH / CAMERA PRESS)
Amy Winehouse at home, 2003
(photo credit: MARKOKOH / CAMERA PRESS)
Amy Winehouse stares out from a 2007 cover of Rolling Stone magazine, a sexy, sultry look on her face. The tattoos on her arm are prominent enough to almost succeed in drawing attention away from the open cleavage at the center of the photograph of the controversial British singer, who died on July 23, 2011 of alcohol intoxication, aged 27.
But her eyes are empty, bereft of vitality or life. Like the ones on the other magazine covers she graced throughout the 2000s, the photograph depicts a crafted, artificial persona, one that bore little resemblance to the individual whom family members describe as “simply a little Jewish kid from North London.” At the age of 23, the eyes of the woman in the photograph seem to belong to someone three times her age.
Compare the look to another photo, this one of Amy the teenager, leaning against a second floor ledge at London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School with an easy smile on her face. Again, her eyes tell the story of this picture; but this story couldn’t stand in sharper contrast to the public image of Amy Winehouse: Here, before it all went so, so bad, Winehouse looks pretty, but not striking. Like most teenagers, her eyes show the wonder and excitement of youth, with little knowledge about where fortune will take her but a keen anticipation to see where this thing called life will eventually lead her.
The sharp contrast between the public and private personalities of the late singer dominates “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” an exhibition of Winehouse’s personal effects – letters, school documents, clothing, awards and photographs – currently on show at the Jewish Museum of London. Co-curated by Alex Winehouse, the singer’s older brother, the exhibition is part of a series of events organized by the family to commemorate what would have been her 30th birthday on September 14, and to show a private side of his troubled sister.
The exhibition is a short stroll through an abbreviated life, beginning with a family tree dating back five generations. Her great-great grandfather, Ben Winehouse, was a barber in London’s working-class East End who established the family in England after emigrating from Belarus in the 19th century. Her paternal grandmother, Cynthia, was a particular source of influence and support. A tattoo of Cynthia’s name stood out on Amy’s arm, and photographs of “Nan,” as Amy called her, feature prominently among the photos and documents in the first section of the exhibit.
It is in this context – the family embrace – that Winehouse appears to have felt most at home in her own skin. The family theme runs through the entire display. As a young child, she appears to have been a happy little girl, mischievous perhaps but comfortable as part of a warm, close-knit nuclear family.
The items chosen for display serve to reinforce this image via an intimate look into the deeper reaches of the singer, and of the entire Winehouse family. There isn’t much Jewish content in the show, apart from a family portrait at Alex’s bar mitzva in 1992; but the items selected for the exhibition suggest a well-adjusted young woman as she entered adolescence and early adulthood. These include family and school photos and memorabilia from her high school years: school sweaters, her first guitar (with an accompanying photo of her playing guitar in Alex’s bedroom), her 1990s-era CD collection, and her beloved records, an indication of her love for retro and her dreams of a period and a time gone by.
Even more illustrative is a video clip of Amy’s solo performance with the Sylvia Young chorus in 1997. Her powerful voice is already mature, but the innocence of her teenage personality is engaging and compelling in a way that her adult performances were not. Similarly, the essays she wrote as an adolescent, several of which are quoted at length at various points of the exhibition, suggest an individual slated for greatness. “My dream is to be very famous,” she wrote on her application form to Sylvia Young. “I want people to hear my voice and forget their troubles for just five minutes.”
The exhibit is divided into two main sections – the “happy youth” section along the left wall, and the “troubled star” section as one winds back to the entrance along the right-hand side of the room. The transition section along the back wall is a tribute to the singers who influenced her, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. It is their music, rather than Winehouse’s provocative, scratchy alto voice, that serves as background music for this show.
And yet, the song that sticks in my mind as I soak it all in is “Candle in the Wind,” Elton John’s paean to another tortured young performer, Marilyn Monroe. “Loneliness was tough/The toughest role you ever played/ Hollywood created a superstar/And pain was the price you paid,” John sang in 1973, and the words fit Winehouse to a T.
Significantly, the show does not touch on the primary undercurrent that accompanied the singer’s professional life – her struggle with drugs, alcohol and self-abuse; nor does it deal with her death from alcohol poisoning. Jewish Museum officials say this was not a coincidence. The exhibition is meant to be a celebration of life, rather than a sorry tribute following a tragic death.
“The family’s original idea was to display one of Amy’s dresses here in order to raise money for the Amy Winehouse Foundation, the charity that the family set up in her name to help treat substance abuse,” Janice Lopatkin, an external relations executive for the Jewish Museum tells The Jerusalem Report. “Our director, Abigail Morris, and curator, Elizabeth Selby, wanted to take the idea further, and the result is the exhibition you see before you. But the family was clear that they wanted the display to concentrate on her life, not the gory details of her death.”
Accordingly, there is no mention of her troubled, short-lived marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil, or of the fact that by the time she died, many industry observers were predicting that Winehouse’s career was over. The later of her two albums, “Back to Black,” was released in 2007, four years before her death, and she was booed off the stage at several venues over the winter of 2010-11 when she appeared on stage too drunk to perform.
But her addictions are the proverbial white elephant in the room, and they clearly form the unspoken backdrop to the exhibition. Walking around the show is a raw experience. The unhappy magazine covers and tiny-waisted performance dresses on display are, simultaneously, a celebration of Winehouse’s phenomenal talent and also a fierce condemnation of the culture that transformed her musical prowess and turned her into an apparently unhappy sex symbol.
It is a tale of a young girl’s dreams of fame, and a painful exposé of the ugly reality that she paid upon achieving that fame. One gets a clear feeling that as the world’s fastest upand- coming singer during the first decade of this century, she wanted little more than to be at home with her family, away from constant harassment by paparazzi photographers, tabloid reporters and a total lack of privacy. Even as an adult, the photos in which she appears happiest are the ones in which she is dressed modestly – a sentiment confirmed by her father in a quote at the exhibit: “Her favorite clothes were probably stuff she wore around the house – jogging bottoms and T-shirts.”
Ultimately, the contrast between Winehouse’s public and private personas raises more questions than it answers – for instance, the family’s relationship to Judaism. On the one hand, the family did make its home in Southgate, a suburb with a significant (but not large) Jewish population, and Alex Winehouse describes the family as “traditional.”
On the other hand, none of the Winehouse children attended Jewish schools, and one display table shows a childhood Snoopy book received as a Christmas present. As mentioned above, there is a photograph of her brother’s bar mitzva, but no indication whether or not the girls in the family celebrated bat mitzvas. Perhaps most indicative of Winehouse’s relationship with Judaism is the fact that there do not appear to be any Jewish themes in her writings or songs, although this might have more to do with the contrast between the public and private Amy.
In addition, the exhibition is clearly an attempt by the Winehouse family to memorialize their daughter and sister and to salve some of the ferocious grief that accompanies such a tragic death. But the show also raises uncomfortable questions about the possibility that the family could have allowed itself to slip into denial about the seriousness of their daughter/sister’s addictions. The exhibition makes no mention of her parents’ divorce in 1992, or of the emotional fallout that must have followed that traumatic event for nine-year-old Amy.
This past May, Stefan Skarbek, the producer of Winehouse’s 2003 album, “Frank,” said the then-20-year-old singer was already showing signs of substance abuse. “When I knew Amy, there were already indications of her drug problems,” Skarbek told The Sun newspaper. The Sun also reported that Winehouse had attempted suicide in the wake of her parents’ divorce, and that her history of self-abusive behavior, including eating disorders and cutting herself, dated back to her teenage years.
Museum officials say they expect 45,000 visitors to see the exhibit before it closes on September 15; in the first 24 hours, the guest book included foreign visitors from Norway, France, Italy and Israel. But they also add that the exhibition is about more than merely numbers. The family’s goal was to memorialize the Amy Winehouse they knew and loved.
“We asked the family to choose the items and photographs that they felt best described the person they knew – Amy the daughter, Amy the sister,” says Lopatkin. “She was the biggest up-and-coming star of the mid- 2000s; but when she died at such a young age, it touched so many people. In their grief, the family wanted to show the woman they knew far away from the cameras. “I think we’ve definitely achieved that.”