Exhibition Offers an Intimate Look at Amy Winehouse

by Sura Wood

“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, offers a multi-dimensional and unusually intimate glimpse into Winehouse’s life.

Tony Bennett once called Amy Winehouse the “best jazz vocalist of her generation.” The soulful British singer/songwriter’s big, heart-rending voice brought her early fame and success, but that didn’t save her from a precipitous descent into drug and alcohol addiction; Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at age 27. Most of what is known about the singer, until now, has come from tabloids-—she was mercilessly hounded by the paparazzi—and such autobiographical songs such as “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good” and “Back to Black.”

“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, offers a multi-dimensional and unusually intimate glimpse—through favorite books, records and memorabilia as well as the affectionate memories of her older brother, Alex—into Winehouse’s childhood, adolescence and young adult life. The show also highlights key influences, including Amy’s grandmother Cynthia, who, as a stylish young woman in the 1950s, dated jazz tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott. Beloved by Amy, she conveyed a passionate love of music to her granddaughter as well as a flair for fashion.

“Alex and his wife, Riva, wanted to show Amy as a sister and friend, as someone whose Jewish heritage and family had informed her personality and interests,” explains Elizabeth Selby, curator at the Jewish Museum London, which originated the show and worked closely with the singer’s family. “There was definitely a feeling that the public only had a view that was informed by the tabloids, and that there was far more depth to her than that.”

“The exhibition humanizes her,” adds CJM associate curator Pierre-François Galpin. “She achieved such a level of fame and celebrity, you tend to forget that she was a human being who loved to read [Nabokov, Dostoyevsky and Bukowski], to collect photographs and spend time with her family.” Amy’s forebears fled the pogroms in Belarus, immigrating to England in the late 1800s. “The show also allows us to tell the story of London and its Jewish neighborhoods and the Jewish culture in the U.K.,” notes CJM executive director Lori Starr.

Though the Winehouses were strongly connected to their Jewish cultural heritage, they were not overtly religious. “Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family, it’s not about lighting candles and saying a b’rucha,” observed Amy, who grew up in the North London suburb of Southgate in a home filled with music. Her father, Mitch, a cabbie with musical aspirations, listened to Frank Sinatra and sang duets with his daughter, and she shared a treasured Regal guitar with Alex when they were kids. Of the guitar, displayed here, Alex writes in a poignant recollection that “It was possibly the worst musical instrument ever—it sounds awful, isn’t very attractive, and the fretboard is as smooth as gravel. Despite this, she wrote many songs on it, and kept it even when she could afford much better guitars.”

Alex introduced Amy to the music of improvisational jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, and she soon developed a sophisticated taste for swing, soul and jazz powerhouses like Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and her musical hero, Tony Bennett; the records she collected are assembled in a section devoted to music. The Grammy award Amy was given posthumously for her duet with Bennett—one of six she received during her short career—is displayed at the end of the exhibition. However, the show is not a straightforward retrospective, and with the exception of a video of a live rendition of “Back to Black,” delivered with gusto in 2006 at a small concert venue in Dingle, Ireland, visitors won’t hear Amy’s songs inside the galleries (though they are played in the museum’s lobby). Rather, insights about Winehouse’s eclectic musical taste can be gleaned from a “chill out” track list Amy compiled when she was a teenager that plays on a soundtrack in the show. “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” sung by Mama Cass, Ella Fitzgerald’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “The Mickey Mouse Club March,” Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack” and Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” are among her personal top 25.

“We consciously wanted people to feel that they were entering Amy’s space, and she would never have listened to her own music at home,” notes Selby. “We wanted the space to be somewhere that Amy would have felt comfortable . . .” To that end, the exhibition includes a map of places in London she frequented; ordinary objects that had meaning to her, such as vintage refrigerator magnets with sassy messages like “I never met a man I couldn’t blame”; and a battered suitcase that contained hundreds of photographs of family and friends. Some of the color photographs here reveal a healthy, fresh-faced young girl full of mischief and vitality, before eating disorders reduced her already petite frame to dangerously thin proportions. Winehouse is said to have looked through the photographs with her father a few days before her death. It the last time they saw each other.

Amy’s talent manifested early as did the precocious confidence and ambition expressed in her application to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, written in her own hand when she was 13. “I’ve been told I was gifted with a lovely voice and I guess my Dad’s to blame for that,” reads one of several excerpts from the essay displayed throughout the show. “Although unlike my Dad, I want to do something with these talents I’ve been ‘blessed’ with. I have this dream to be very famous. I want be remembered for being a singer, for sell-out concerts and . . . for being just. . . me.”

It seems she got her wish.

“You Know I’m No Good,” a small companion show featuring works by three contemporary artists, Rachel Harrison, Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger, addresses the dark side of celebrity and the paradoxes of Winehouse’s artistry and legacy. Both shows run concurrently.

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

July 23-November 1

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission St., San Francisco