Michael Jackson – his hits: Billie Jean, Man In The Mirror or They Don’t Care About Us. Die-hard fans may recall his poetry apart from his songs, which he immortalized in the poetry collection Dancing The Dream. But what is often completely left out is his work in the visual arts: MJ was fond of drawing, and he also liked to have others draw him.
Even as a child, Michael expressed himself with the help of drawings: In those years, MJ particularly enjoyed drawing his great idol Charlie Chaplin, whose song Smile he interpreted in 1995.
But this early fascination for a silent film legend alone was not enough to satisfy Michael’s enthusiasm for the visual arts: with his emerging solo career, his opportunities to pursue this private interest also expanded.
Shortly before Michael, then still a member of the Jackson Five, moved to California, to live with the entertainer Diana Ross for some time. Michael writes in his autobiography that it was she who awakened his interest in art at a young age. As a balance to the show business, Ross gave the young Michael an introduction to the world of art: they drew together and Ross took the rising star to numerous museums, where she introduced him to the works of Michelangelo and Degas. In his memoir Moonwalk, Michael describes Diana as his mother, lover, and sister all in one person.
In 1979, when MJ was 21 years old, he met sculptor and artist Brett-Livingstone Strong. It was around the time Jackson released his first internationally successful album, Off The Wall. This meeting developed into an artistic partnership between the two that both artists would benefit from equally.
Brett-Livingstone designed numerous artworks for MJ in the 1980s, which were then printed on his concert brochures and CD releases: This collaboration culminated in 1991 in the artwork for Michael’s album Dangerous.
Dangerous cover artwork
The centrepiece of the album cover is a drawing of Michael’s eyes, which Brett-Livingstone was responsible for: Michael’s brown eyes, graced by strongly accentuated black eyebrows, are rounded off with his characteristic curl of hair hanging down between the two brows. Although only a part of his face is visible, it is obvious that this is Michael Jackson’s face.
Around Michael’s face, one discovers a royal-looking embellishment, but it doesn’t look playful at all: There are numerous elements of royal rule on the cover – including thrones and royal robes. It seems deliberately comical that animals in royal robes sit on the thrones.
Below Michael’s face is the entrance to a factory, which stands out from the colorful rest of the cover due to its dark sketching. Behind the factory’s gates is an upside-down earth ball squeezed between two ends of a chimney.
The upside-down globe may mean that, from Michael’s point of view, the world is upside down: On the album itself, he sings about social problems, among other things. In the track Black Or White, Michael critically addresses the issue of racism, the song Heal The World speaks for itself through its title – the world should be healed and freed from dark energy.
The American painter Mark Ryden was responsible for the artistic realization of the Dangerous cover.
A high point of MJ’s commitment to the visual arts was the Jackson-Strong Alliance: in early 1989, the cornerstone of a year-long artistic collaboration was laid between MJ and Brett-Livingstone Strong.
The two artists signed a contract and moved into a studio in Culver City, a small town in California: There, over the next few years, they worked individually or together on their artwork.
Among other things, the two worked on a collection called The Artist’s Formula:
It featured portraits of important artists such as Michelangelo and van Gogh. For a portrait of Michelangelo, Michael is said to have bought a 500-year-old book (from the time when Michelangelo lived), torn out a page from it and portrayed Michelangelo on it.
Originally, The Artist’s Formula project was initiated by Brett-Livingstone – Michael contributed 170 works to the project, 120 of which have survived.
For this series, MJ drew Walt Disney, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Martin Luther King and Marilyn Monroe, among others.
A glance at the artworks
If one takes a look at MJ’s paintings, a panorama emerges: there are abstract works in which Michael processes his relationship to dancing. Often these paintings show Michael himself dancing in his famous moccasins with white socks. Then there are self-portraits – the most striking of which shows Michael in his getup for the Thriller music video.
Michelangelo was among the artists MJ most enjoyed studying: he made a recreation of Michelangelo’s work The Creation, for example.
Chairs and keys were not purely functional objects for Michael, but also objects of artistic expression: among his drawings are artistically decorated chairs and keys. Based on the drawn designs, Michael wanted to have fabrications made of bronze.
A painting depicting the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio de Janeiro is particularly impressive: The focus of the painting is not the statue itself, but a kind of spiral whose core embodies the sun: At two ends of the spiral, one can see the outstretched arms of Cristo Redentor.
There was no major exhibition of the King of Pop’s works open to the public during his lifetime. Most of his works are still in the studio of the Jackson-Strong-Alliance – some paintings have already been sold, others are untraceable.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Michael Jackson live in Lisbon in 1992, © Constru-centro, taken from Wikimedia Commons
The main sources of this article are the book “Artworks by Michael Jackson”, 2015 ArtLima (published in German) and Michael’s memoirs “Moonwalk”, 2010 Random House (first published in 1988 by Doubleday)