Winged Painters and Frozen Frames: Tori Amos and the Visual Arts

Little Blue World vol.7 n°2 summer 2007

Thursday 25 August 2011, by Elyssa Pacchio

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Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), Salvador Dali, 1954

Joni Mitchell and e.e. cummings both applied their talents to the palette in addition to producing their music and poetry, but it’s unclear whether Tori will ever follow her muses in using oils, watercolors and a canvas as another way of sharing her one-of-a-kind artistic vision. While Tori often uses painting metaphors to describe songwriting — Under the Pink’s abstract lyrical style was an impressionist painting; Boys for Pele was an interplay between light and shadow — so far the closest thing we’ve seen of Tori paintings are the crayon doodlings that accompany the UTP songbook. These include evocative representations of the songs themselves: "Space Dog" as a cave-painting style canine with some kind of geyser exploding out of his head; "Over It" as a disembodied pair of shoes beneath a blue umbrella.

But while the day may never come when we hear of a London art gallery hosting a slew of Tori’s charming crayon art, there’s no denying the influence that painting and photography has always had on Tori. The visual arts often provide Tori with a way of metaphorically describing the songwriting process, even though she is the first to admit that despite all her other talents, she is no art critic. "I just pick up paintings," Tori confessed while leading a Course on Creativity at UCLA in 1995. "I’m kind of not really versed in that world, but I just get a lot of books and I look at them and just... don’t know what I’m really looking at."

Critics and fans alike didn’t quite know what they were looking at either when first scanning through the lyrical booklets for UTP and BFP. The albums aren’t described as abstract, Impressionist paintings for nothing. Impressionistic painters applied a stroke of blue next to yellow in order to create green in the eyes of the beholder; Tori juxtaposes seemingly unrelated images, so that it’s up to the listener to decide what "impression" they are left with. Free verse like the infamous "tuna/rubber/a little blubber in my igloo" opening in "Marianne" may seem randomly placed and downright obtuse, but it’s that same free-ranging, associative quality that Impressionistic painters applied to their brush strokes.

You wouldn’t be able to describe in photograpic detail what the Cathedral of Rouen looks like by looking at a Monet painting, but that’s because Impressionism was all about the essence of things rather than the details, showing how reality existed not in the painting but through the eyes of the beholder. Likewise, you may not ever be able to explain to someone unversed in Tori-lore what exactly those opening lyrics of "Marianne" refer to, but as Tori put it with B-Side, it’s more about what her lyrics make her listeners feel than their literal meaning — meaning which depends not on the lyrics themselves, but on what the listener brings to the table.

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Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon On La Grande Jatte

The odd angles that Impressionists took in framing their subjects and the in-your-face brushstrokes that stood out like sloppy finger-painting to shocked art critics back in the 1860’s were both qualities that suggested a different ethos when it came to thinking about art. During Tori’s 1996 Spin interview with Francesca Lia Block, she described the South depicted in BFP as an Impressionist painting, in which fragments of beauty and sensuality jostle against shards of cruelty and violence. It’s that uncomfortable, sloppy beauty that Tori is concerned with and understandably what she sees in Impressionist works like Seurat’s painting of a faceless Victorian woman with a parasol, her body reduced to tiny, mingling smears of black and white, or in Impressionist composer Debussy’s piano sonatas, where the sound of snowflakes falling is recreated in crashing dissonant chords. Beauty in disorder and ugliness, the essential interplay between color and darkness, light and shadow, male and female: that pretty much sums up the human experience that Tori tries to depict.

Considering that Tori also browsed through Dali books while boled up in her New Mexico studio, it’s surprising that "surrealism" wasn’t thrown around more in describing the Pink-Pele era. Remember the single takes that it took Tori to write, perform and record songs like "Bells for Her," "Horses" and "Not the Red Baron"? Dali’s Surrealist posse of the 1920s practiced similar techniques with automatic writing and drawing. Tori told B-Side that the layered symbols in BFP weren’t only about creating a deliberate conceptual journey, but, considering that many songs were finished in the recording process, it was more about that uncensored, messy quality of art being created in the here and the now. BFP is out there will all its clumsy brushstrokes visible to the world, and it is that willingness with which Tori journeys through the not-always-pretty realms of her unconscious that places her squarely in the spirit of the Surrealists.

Impressionist and Surrealist influenced don’t necessarily disappear from Tori’s work as soon as she returned to more traditional song structures. Impressionism was so stylized partially because of photography’s influence: both media were used to capture fleeting moments in time, depicting ordinary people as well as misfits such as carnival performers. Tori mused to Spin in 2002 that her hectic tour schedule often made her feel like a photographer akin to Diane Arbus, experiencing brief encounters with people in which they somehow revealed their essence to her. When considering that Tori attributed both the germination of Scarlet’s Walk and American Doll Posse to brief encounters with women who urged her to take up arms against the current political climate, it’s clear that in the latter half of her career Tori has become even more concerned with "photographing" specific, fleeting moments in American history.

Tori is known to have displayed Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s work on her piano while composing, another artist who shared her concern with broadcasting contemporary political woes with a heavy dose of symbolism and surrealism. Bravo, who grew up in the thick of the Mexican revolution, captured the continuing poverty and political turmoil of the 1930s and 40s, producing work which Tori cited as a strong influence on SW. She told Play in 2002 that her favorite photograph by Bravo was that of a young woman lying down on a street, covered in bandages: an image that evoked both the ability to heal as well as the capacity to suffer. Bravo who grew up living just blocks from the former location of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma’s holy temple, was well aware of Mexico’s legacy as a stolen land, something which no doubt resonated with Tori as she developed the themes of SW.

Just as Bravo often treated the Mexican landscape as a living, breathing force, Kurt Markus — whom Tori called her favorite contemporary photographer — focuses on the American heartland and his native Montana in the same way, culminating in Markus being contracted to do all the photo work on SW. In much of Markus’ work — which, like Bravo’s, relies heavily upon the interplays and contrasts between darkness and light — his camera captures ’fleeting moments’ that could serve as a visual summary of Tori’s continued concern with religion, the ’cowboy’ patriarchal mentality and the search for America’s lost soul. As Tori became more occupied with themes of her Native American heritage, both Bravo and Markus provided impetus for seeing the land itself as familiar and alive.

Although it may not come out in her crayon drawings, part of what makes Tori’s word and music pictures so fascinatingly visual is her adamancy that her artistic sensibility remains fundamentally intertwined with her feminity. When Tori described Georgia O’Keefe as making your "petals drip" to Spin, it was an apt metaphor for her kinship with similarly independent women artists and painters, including O’Keefe, Diane Arbus and modern Australian photographer Tracy Moffat. Whether it is O’Keefe’s withered oxen bones draped in flowers in a New Mexican landscape, Arbus’ photograph of an infant Anderson Cooper as a still-life death mask, or Moffat’s Edward Gorey inspired photo-narratives of Victorian melodrama in her "Laudanum" series, all of Tori’s female muses display a similar concern for what has been a thematic thread running through Tori’s albums since the beginning: what is wounded can also heal; what is bone can also sprout blossoms; what is a shadow can also be combined with light. Whether Tori is looking at a Seurat portrait or a Bravo snapshot for inspiration, she crafts songs that are vivid mini-paintings in themselves. It’s easy to understand, when we keep in mind the breadth of art movements and styles that she draws upon, as well as her ever-present insistence that she is squarely placing herself in the role of a feminine creator rather than muse. If nothing else, when it comes to artistic influences, Tori insists she is a DaVinci rather than a Mona Lisa.

Elyssa Pacchio