Thursday, 30 april 2020
"And the poets, they explode like bombs" sings Andrew Bird from the Bluetooth speaker. I'm sitting on the balcony on a warm but already advanced spring morning. With my mobile phone I scroll through the musician's discography. The cover of his last album My Finest Work Yet from 2019 immediately catches my eye again.
The musician stages himself in a reconstruction of the painting Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David from 1793, in which the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793), who has just been murdered, sits in the bathtub.
Because of a skin disease, the journalist and doctor Marat had to bathe regularly. During one of these baths, the noblewoman and royalist, Charlotte Corday, killed Marat with a stab in the chest. While Marat has a stab wound in the painting, Andrew Bird lies apparently asleep in the bathtub. There are also some differences in the details. But if you turn Bird's record cover over, the musician has suddenly disappeared and only the empty bathtub is left behind.
Why does one stage himself as a musician in this way? Why does he choose this particular painting?
Is Andrew Bird the only musician who quotes this painting? Curious, I start googling... when the balcony is already in the shade I found a small collection of albums that seem to have used the Death of Marat as a template for the cover. Most similar is the cover of Steve Goodman's album Stay it in Private from 1977. Even on the back of the album you can find the empty bathtub. But contrary to Marat and Bird, Steve Goodman sits in the bathtub, grinning wide. A macabre joke?
Then there is the cover of the album East by the band Cold Chisel from 1980. The Australian pub rock band presents their singer Jimmy Barnes in a slightly different interpretation of the Death of Marat. Although the original is still recognizable, the perspective and setting have changed considerably.
Don Walker, one of the band members said:
"I got the idea of the bathtub and the Marat/Sade ripoff. I knew I wanted to fill the whole thing up with certain flavoured bric-a-brac. Jenny spent a whole week getting the bric-a-brac together out of the antique shops and second-hand book shops. There was a certain list of books I wanted but she came back with some wonderful stuff I would never have thought of." (Michael Lawrence (2012). Cold Chisel: Wild Colonial Boys. Melbourne, Victoria: Melbourne Books. p. 131.)
The most striking detail is certainly the Japanese headband that Barnes wears. Later it turned out that he wore it upside down.
In 2008 the album Deathconsciousness by Have a Nice Life was released. On the cover an excerpt of the original painting by Jacques-Louis David made it.
The album is accompanied by a 70-page booklet that describes an extinct religion. Allegedly it was written by a professor of religious anthropology and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In various articles about the album, I read that the album and booklet seem to be closely intertwined, but getting to the bottom of it seems almost impossible. Finally, I remember an album cover by David Bowie. After some searching I find the picture as his profile picture on Spotify and as cover of the EP Is It Any Wonder? from 2020.
The musician is sitting in a bathroom-like room, whose ceramic amateurs seem surreal. But it is mainly the atmosphere in this room that reminds of the Death of Marat.
I get a chill on the balcony, but I am thrilled. How quickly a whole network of works of art opens up from a single record cover. With their covers and their music, each album tells its own story, but through the revolutionary painting of Jacques-Louis David, they are all connected. Especially in quarantine, the internet offers the possibility for endless discoveries. If you know similar stories about covers or an album that also quotes the Death of Marat, please send me an email to email@example.com.