As Skepta’s first (and only) painting goes to auction, we explore the flowers, fractured souls, and ‘offensive filth’ of other musicians who’ve tried their hand at visual art, from Britney Spears to Kurt Cobain
Britney Spears’ artistic practice goes way back, all the way to 2017, when the singer first shared a video of her working at an easel, her paint-spattered shirt billowing in the breeze on the ivy-strewn veranda of her California mansion. Like the rest of the singer’s eternally-optimistic Instagram, her paintings – which she picked up again in 2021, at the height of her conservatorship battle – are bright and relentlessly cheerful: swirly shapes and childlike flowers.
Reactions to the paintings were… mixed. On the one hand, Britney’s first canvas sold for $10,000 at a Las Vegas charity auction. On the other, art collector Robert Sandelson told Dazed that the pop star’s flower painting was a “childlike doodle”, adding: “It wouldn’t get into my fairs, there’s no artistic mind behind it.” Harsh, but Britney herself probably doesn’t care – as she so wisely says: “Sometimes you’ve just gotta play!”
Just as Britney was taking up painting for the first time in 2017, UTA Artist Space was also digging up a trove of paintings by another musical icon, Kurt Cobain. Put on display alongside the Nirvana frontman’s notebooks in his hometown of Seattle, the paintings had been tucked away in storage since his death in 1994, though one, Incesticide, adorned the band’s album of the same name.
Other artworks by the late musician include comic strips, plus the creepy paintings Crackbabies and Fistula. While they didn’t achieve the same global fame as Nirvana’s albums (which came with their own controversial artworks), each explores the same dark and irreverent themes as Cobain’s music and lyrics. That’s not to say that his art isn’t commercially successful in and of itself, either – just last year, a quick self-portrait sketched in black felt pen sold for more than $281,000.
It’s tempting to suggest that Courtney Love’s paintings, debuted at her Fred Torres Gallery exhibition And She’s Not Even Pretty in 2012, aren’t actually very good, and they definitely don’t reach the grungy heights of her musical output with Hole. Dozens of works on paper rendered with coloured pencils, inks, pastels, and watercolours include cartoonish nudes surrounded by ironic snippets of text – think: a punk rendition of Anna Delvey’s prison sketches. Then, you read a savage takedown in the Daily Mail – branding a wedding dress she defaced with obscenities as “offensive filth masquerading as serious work” – and suddenly you might find yourself with a new appreciation for her art, if only because it pisses off the right people.
When a lucky shopper bought a David Bowie painting at a Canadian landfill for around $4 last year, he didn’t initially realise who it was by, and was presumably surprised to learn – after having its authenticity confirmed by art experts – that it was actually predicted to fetch over $50,000, as confirmed by a swift online auction where it went for north of $80,000.
Of course, interest in Bowie’s visual art was already high before the 2021 auction, with the musician having interwoven painting and music throughout almost his entire career. Taking inspiration from German Expressionism, African art, friends such as Iggy Pop, and – perhaps most prominently – his own odd-eyed form, his artworks document the mise-en-scène of his career as a world-travelling rockstar, as well as the transformations between his own personas in an appropriately shape-shifting style.
Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes, AKA c, has long shaped her own visual identity as a musician, designing cover art for albums such as Halfaxa and Visions. However, it was only in 2020, after the release of Miss Anthropocene, that her art really started to make headlines, helped along by her plan to sell a “fraction of her soul” alongside her more conventional notebook sketches and anime-inspired digital prints.
Unsurprisingly, the musician was also quick to dive into the world of NFTs, raking in almost $6 million via an auction of 10 pieces of original crypto art, collected under the title WarNymph Collection Vol. 1. Depicting Grimes’ de-aged digital avatar, WarNymph, the images are faithful to her space fairy aesthetic. Unfortunately for eager buyers at the height of the NFT boom, however, the hype didn’t last, and the price of the NFTs went on to plummet by over 80 per cent. Who’s to say if Grimes fans ever recovered from their losses?
It would be remiss to list musicians-turned-artists and not save a spot for Joni Mitchell, a self-proclaimed “painter derailed by circumstance”. The Canadian musician originally pursued painting at art school, but dropped out to pursue her budding music career, although she was said to have returned to her focus on visual art after she essentially announced her retirement from the music business in the mid-2000s.
Unfortunately, much of her art remains unseen, since it’s rarely publicly exhibited. The self-portraits that we have seen often form the brilliant covers of albums such as 1969’s Clouds, 2000’s Both Sides Now, and 1994’s Turbulent Indigo (which sees her insert herself into Van Gogh’s famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear). Mitchell has gone as far as to state, in a 1998 interview: “I’m a painter first, and a musician second… I have a painter's ego and I get a thrill of juxtaposing one colour against another. I get like a private rush.”
$4,800 for an unoriginal pop art portrait of a celebrity by an actor, aspiring rockstar, and alleged abuser who wears a fedora and bangles to paint? No thanks x