The website for the UK’s Tate Galleries defines Pop Art as…“an art movement that emerged in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s in America and Britain, drawing inspiration from sources in popular and commercial culture such as advertising, Hollywood movies and pop music. Key pop artists include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney.” (1)
Photographic artist David LaChapelle has a much broader definition. He believes that ‘pop art’ is art that has crossed over from being for the very few to being for everyone – it is art that has become so recognisable that everyone can identify it – not just Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, but Michelangelo’s David or something from Michael Jackson’s catalogue.
It is art that has transcended genre and outlived the era in which it was created.
LaChapelle equated the art of Michelangelo with that of Michael Jackson in a recent BBC video clip promoting an exhibition at the National Gallery, London.* It’s a statement that may shock some, but which hardly comes as a revelation for Michael’s many fans. (2)
David LaChapelle, whose first job as a professional photographer was for Warhol, is famous for his own surrealistic photographic and film work employing popular cultural figures in exotic scenarios often inspired by Renaissance artworks and displaying Biblical themes.
In December 2016 he photographed Paris Jackson for her Rolling Stone cover feature where his use of religious iconography is prominent – along with plenty of nods to Paris’ father, of whom LaChapelle is a huge fan. (3)
Biblical themes dominate his series ‘American Jesus’ which featured three post-2009 images of Michael Jackson (achieved by using an impersonator plus some digital manipulation) respectively titled ‘American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly’, ‘The Beatification: I’ll Never Let You Part For You’re Always In My Heart’ and ‘Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer’. (4)
The first of these, ‘American Jesus’ features a pose clearly inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’.
Michael Jackson’s own appreciation for the art of Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci is well documented. He saw some of these masterpieces first hand while in Italy on his Bad world tour in 1988. (5)
Later, at Neverland, he had a painting of himself by David Nordal – called simply ‘Michael’ – which was inspired by Michelangelo’s monumental sculpture of David.
In his ‘Moonwalk’ biography, Michael explained his admiration for Michelangelo – “he poured his soul into his work. He knew in his heart that one day he would die, but that work he did would live on. You can tell he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with all his soul. At one point he even destroyed it and did it over because he wanted it to be perfect. He said, ’If the wine is sour, pour it out.’” (6)
This is a particularly memorable scene in the 1965 movie The Agony and the Ecstasy based on Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo. I wonder if Michael saw it and remembered it from there? (I first saw this film in the cinema as part of a school group accompanied by the nuns who taught us. Today I still own a copy of the movie on DVD, so I know it well.) (7)
Michael certainly knew the emotions involved in Michelangelo’s outburst – and undertook similar drastic measures. When he listened to the completed Thriller album for the first time, he knew it wouldn’t work. In ‘Moonwalk’ he explains that he felt devastated and angry, and declared “We’re not releasing it.”
After a couple of days off, and taking a deep breath, Michael and his team mixed the entire album all over again. Afterwards everyone – including the record company – could hear the difference. “It felt so good when we finished. I was so excited I couldn’t wait for it to come out.” (8)
Michael’s instincts as an artist who – like Michelangelo – poured his heart and soul into his work were accurate – “if the wine is sour, pour it out.”
For Michelangelo, the outcome of starting afresh was his Sistine Chapel masterpiece. For Michael Jackson, it was the biggest selling album of all time.
When discussing his song writing technique with Vibe magazine in 2002, he again referenced Michelangelo (and another scene from The Agony and the Ecstasy) when he said (in part) “I believe it’s already up there before you are born, and then it drops right into your lap. It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments, the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics, and you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel… Like Michelangelo would have this huge piece of marble from the quarries of Italy, and he’d say, ‘Inside is a sleeping form.’ He takes a hammer and chisel, and he’s just freeing it. It’s already in there. It’s already there.” (9)
Like Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos and monumental sculptures, Michael’s albums, singles and videos are indelibly stamped on popular culture – they are ‘pop art’ as defined by David LaChapelle.
Whether or not we agree with LaChapelle’s definition of the genre, to have Michael Jackson’s creative endeavours compared to those of Michelangelo is a testament to Michael’s work ethic and life-long commitment to perfecting his art.
I believe the comparison is justly deserved and one he would have loved.
‘Art is Life… Life is Art’ pop art triptych features Michelangelo’s Pieta, photo of Michael Jackson (photographer unknown) and David LaChapelle’s American Jesus, digitally edited by the author.
*The Credit Suisse Exhibition “Michelangelo & Sebastiano” runs 15 March – 25 June 2017 at The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London. For details visit: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/the-credit-suisse-exhibition-michelangelo-sebastiano
For an examination of David LaChapelle’s images depicting Michael Jackson I highly recommend Annemarie Latour’s two-part article “Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s Fine Art Portrayal of Michael Jackson” (link below). Annemarie has also recently written on the iconography in LaChapelle’s portraits of Paris Jackson for Rolling Stone: https://annemarielatour.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/faith-trust-and-pixie-dust-david-lachapelle-and-paris-jackson/
- BBC video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwJJ0uUASIo
- Rolling Stone http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/paris-jackson-michael-jacksons-daughter-speaks-out-w462501
- Annemarie Latour “Redeeming the King of Pop: David LaChapelle’s Fine Art Portrayal of Michael Jackson Parts 1 and 2
- Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” Arrow Books paperback edition 2010 p.220
- “The Agony and the Ecstasy” 20th Century Fox, 1965 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058886/?ref_=vi_tt_t
- Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” pp 199-200
- Vibe magazine interview, March 2002 as blogged by http://www.allmichaeljackson.com/interviews/vibemaginterview.html