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Andy Warhol

Brigitte Bardot, by Gerald Laing

Brigitte Bardot, by Gerald Laing

By Bill Heaney

The artist Gerald Laing has died at his home, Kinkell Castle on the Black Isle, aged 75.

Laing was best known for his iconic images, which included as the remarkable 1962 portrait of French film star Brigitte Bardot and, more recently, his paintings of Amy Winehouse, who herself died earlier this year.

Always operating on the pulse of modernity, Laing’s early talent was recognised by both his contemporaries and the art establishment whilst he was a student at St Martin’s College of Art in London. He painted many of his memorable images there, including the one of Bardot, which went on to become a bestselling Habitat poster and highly collectable screenprint.

Laing was invited along with other British Pop artists, notably Richard Smith, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson, to attend weekly discussions about the “New Idea”, and at about the same time in New York he was accepted on the art scene in America.

He spent some time living with Robert Indiana and worked in the same circles as the still to become famous Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Rosenquist, among others.

Laing was at the centre of the American Pop Art movement. Before graduating, he had been taken on by a leading American gallery, after which he then moved his young family to New York, where he made a successful name for himself as an “American” artist.

He showed his work at the American Pavilion at São Paulo Biennale in 1966 and his paintings were acquired by leading American museums and institutions. The subjects of his work during this period were mainly based around four themes: the novelty of space travel; the modern and dangerous pursuit of dragster racing; sport parachuting; and his infamous Starlets, the bikini-clad “ideal” women.

Laing had a dedicated passion and appreciation for machinery and young women that lasted throughout his lifetime.

Friends describe him as “a bold and political thinker”, and Laing was also known for using the Pop idiom as reportage to confront controversial issues throughout his career, often provoking strong reactions.

For example, his commemorative work Lincoln convertible, believed to be the only painted record of President John F Kennedy’s assassination by a living artist of significance, was deemed too controversial to display.

It was hidden away from view by his art dealer in a shed for almost 30 years. Again according to friends, so profound was the impact of this on Laing, and such was his disappointment, that it contributed towards shattering his faith in the American Dream.

Similarly, the body of work he produced in response to the wars in Iraq and the 7/7 London bombings are later examples of Laing using his art as a platform on which to confront contemporary values and the establishment.

In this case, despite making highly uncomfortable viewing, Laing achieved immediate success with them and as they have been widely publicised and exhibited as some of the most significant and incisive commentaries on these matters.

Laing, whom friends say was disillusioned with the American politic, moved to the Highlands to fulfil a childhood dream of rebuilding a castle ruin and he purchased ailing but beautiful Kinkell Castle, near Inverness.

Newly married to his beloved muse and second wife, Galina, they departed New York together and returned to the United Kingdom on the QE2. The happy couple were treated to a send-off party on board the ship with a cake Lichtenstein had decorated with the saltire to celebrate the occasion.

Laing was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1936, the son of a soldier from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and Enid Foster, originally from Newcastle. Laing’s relationship with his father was absent and his childhood even with his mother was unhappy, but his response to this was to embark on life from scratch with tremendous energy and zeal.

Gerald Laing

Gerald Laing

As head of an extensive family, what he achieved in his lifetime is both inspiring and admirable. After training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Laing joined his father’s regiment in 1955 as a young officer.

He soon discovered, however, that the life of a soldier was not for him – and, after a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, Laing left the Fusiliers in 1960. After taking art lessons in secret, he enrolled to become an art student at St Martin’s.

After gradual success and finally eminence in America, and a grand retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on his return to the UK, he treated the ruin of Kinkell Castle like a giant work of sculpture, lovingly hand-crafting and repairing it with great expertise and newly acquired skills.

Laing also found time during this period to set up a tapestry workshop, where he taught himself the traditional skills of tapestry weaving. Once content that he had acquired sufficient skills himself, he trained and employed a team of weavers who ran a successful enterprise, and Henry Moore was among a number of famous people who had tapestries made there.

Laing also set up a bronze foundry at Kinkell Castle after experiencing an epiphany at the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

He sought out and worked under the expert guidance of George Mancini, a retired Italian master in bronze whose family used traditional methods passed down from Roman times.

It was from this particular venture that Laing built an incredible body of sculptural work comprising of both personal and public commissions over a period of 30 years.

His earliest surviving examples of working in bronze can be seen in the Galina Series, a group of portrait bronzes depicting the love of his life. Further significant sculptures include: Four Rugby Players and The Line-out at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.

His frieze of The Wise and Foolish Virgins adorns the Standard Life building in George Street, Edinburgh. Axis Mundi, again for Standard Life, and a memorial to Sir Arthur Conan are also in Edinburgh and there are two editions of The Highlanders at Helmsdale in Sutherland.

Notable portrait commissions carried out by Laing include Sir Paul Getty, Sam Wanamaker, Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Johnson and Siaka Stevens.

Laing’s work is collected all over the world. Examples can be found in the collections of the National Gallery, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; and in the Indianapolis Museum.

Other examples of Laing’s work are known to be in the private collections of some of the world’s most famous women, including the supermodels Jerry Hall and Kate Moss, the designer Sadie Frost and the late singer Amy Winehouse.

Laing’s decision to divide his time between London and Kinkell Castle in the last decade of his life created a huge stir in the art world and affected a renaissance period for him that lasted right up to his death.

Friends say this makes the loss of his battle with his illness even more tragic, as the true extent of his renown was just being realised and re-addressed.

Laing died of cancer, and worked right up until his death. He leaves three ex-wives and six much-loved children.

Gerald Laing, artist, 11 November 1936 – 23 November 2011.

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<em>Picture: Office of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann</em>

Picture: Office of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann

Funny how?

Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has made the cover of Newsweek magazine, which should represent a triumph for her.

Unfortunately, there is an easy consensus from both left and right that the senator for Minnesota looks, to be frank, odd. While focusing on the funny-ha-ha, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart contends that the intention of Newsweek’s famously liberal editor Tina Brown was to make the woman they’re calling Sarah Palin 2.0 look funny-strange.

Fox News think it’s a left-wing conspiracy.

“Some people look at this picture and think Michele Bachmann looks crazy, “ Brown said, in a rather unconvincing rebuttal. “Some people look at it and think it’s the next president of the United States. The fact that these two things are no longer mutually exclusive is what I think makes it pretty compelling… This is a very polarizing moment in politics and this cover absolutely captures that moment.”

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s sketch-upload site Funny or Die has certainly made merry on the issue.

The real problem is that great magazine covers – portraits of high-profile individuals, anyway – tend to do one of two things: capture someone’s essential essence, or play with it to change perception or surprise.

Both are normally – but not always – done with the subject’s blessing. Here, in no particular order, are five magazine covers which do one thing and five which surprise:

Five covers which captured someone in a moment…
1 – Andy Warhol, Esquire, May 1969
Art director George Lois’s covers for Esquire were expert at capturing the essence of a story. So much so that they made them into a book. Lois worked in advertising, too, which made sense when you look at how he helped Esquire sell Andy Warhol.

2 – Demi Moore, Vanity Fair, August 1991
Not only Hugh Hefner knows that plenty of nude women have graced covers, but Annie Leibovitz’ portrait of a nude pregnant woman got America talking. And, no, that is not Ashton Kutcher’s older brother in there.

3 – Kurt Cobain, NME, April 1994
Sometimes an image can say more than a hundred obituaries.

4 – Vladimir Putin, Time, December 2007
In modern terms, the two main portraiture photographers are Martin Schoeller and British photographer Platon. Platon’s shot of Vladimir Putin was not in itself noteworthy, but Time’s pronouncement of the Russian leader as 2007’s Person of the Year was the real talking-point.

5 – Suede, Select, April 1993
The music press likes to think of itself as starting scenes. It could be a challenge to round up the lapsed Melody Maker readers who will petition on behalf of the “Romo” and “New Wave of New Wave” movements. This cover actually did start what would become Britpop. While the rest of the music press was shoegazing and had their eyes fixed on Seattle, Select saw something in the burgeoning British music scene featuring Brett Anderson in front of a Union Jack. Under two years later, Damon Albarn shouting “Wake Up, America” from the stage of Blur’s all-conquering Brit Awards.

…and five covers which flipped the script
1 – Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, W Magazine, July 2005
A happy families shot of the Jolie-Pitts wouldn’t look shocking now – the weekend papers carried shots of them outside a west London branch of Halfords. But before the ink on your divorce to Jennifer Aniston had been filed (that was August), going to an upscale fashion mag with your new girlfriend, fashion photographer Steven Klein and some imaginary weans is pretty out there.

2 – Ice-T, Rolling Stone, August 1992
After the riots (remember them?) in LA, Ice-T released a charming ditty with his band Body Count called Cop Killer which had Moses himself (OK, Charlton Heston) walking into a board meeting at Warner Brothers and parting the Red Sea of shareholders. Rolling Stone had a novel way of soothing the biggest story in America that summer – this.

3 – Macaulay Culkin, The Face, November 2002
Terry Richardson is a provocative photographer. And The Face certainly had plenty of provocative and iconic covers. Any number of Kate Moss, Kylie or Madonna images could have been chosen. But Kevin from Home Alone. This time it was the readers who affected both hands to cheeks and opened their gobs.

4 – Britney Spears, Rolling Stone, December 1999
A long, long time ago there was a period last century when Britney Spears appeared on magazine covers with her clothes on. Then Rolling Stone and David LaChapelle talked her into this. (Note to magazine editors: next time a truculent pop star tells you they won’t share a cover with another artist, remind them Britney shared hers with a Teletubby.)

5 – Diana at 50, Newsweek, June 2011
What would the late Princess of Wales have made of life in 2011? We’ll never know. That didn’t stop Tina Brown trying to have a controversy-rousing guess.

The Michele Bachmann cover is problematic because if she wasn’t complicit in the way she was represented, it doesn’t seem entirely fair. Voters in America will soon have their chance to make up their minds on the candidate, but whether this cover captures her essential essence is unsure. It could tell us more about the magazine editor behind it.

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Charlie Sheen – bombed in Detroit <em>Picture: Angela George</em>

Charlie Sheen – bombed in Detroit Picture: Angela George

Detroit. Home to the “Black Bottom” area where Aretha Franklin’s father opened his first church and where Ella, Ellington and Basie played. Home of the greatest record label of all time. Home to the clubs where Marshall Mathers first started freestyling.

To that rich heritage of entertainment, the Motor City will now go down in history as the first-ever landing spot for Charlie Sheen’s Violent Torpedo of Truth / Defeat Is Not An Option tour.

Highlights included… well, you know very well by now that there were no highlights.

Sheen’s two girlfriends kissed each other on stage, the actor asked said girlfriends to burn his Two and a Half Men shirt, and he announced from the stage: “I am finally here to identify and train the Vatican assassin locked inside each and every one of you.” He also charmed the crowd with “Let me tell you a story about crack. Figured Detroit was a good place to try this joke.”

He finished the first night of the Refunds Are Not An Option tour 20 minutes early – or, if you asked many in the audience, 80 minutes too late.

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It’s tempting to wonder what the individuals referred to by the actor himself as “trolls” and who paid to see him were expecting – the ghost of Peter Ustinov? Or even how Sheen would have gone at the old Glasgow Empire.

The good news for Scotland is that the rest of Sheen’s 20 dates are in the US. The bad news for Sheen is that he joins the all-time least promising nights out. There are gigs that don’t sell out. Even Noel Gallagher admits Oasis played to empty pubs at the start of their career.

There are live entertainment events that are disastrous, but are fondly remembered by some, like Daphne and Celeste’s memorable Reading festival appearance. There are bold attempts, like Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur On Ice, which if nothing else achieve unforgettable status. And then there are these:

Anthea Turner’s Perfect Housewife Tour
Axed before it was begun, the former Blue Peter presenter charged £16.50 for punters to hear her talk about dusting skirting boards. Remarkably, it never happened.

Carrie: The Musical
A Stephen King novel, an Academy Award-nominated Brian DePalma film, and an RSC production headed for Broadway. And then Off-Broadway. And then just off. If critics could have drenched it in pig’s blood, they would have.

Whitney Houston’s 2010 tour
Whitney’s UK performance in Birmingham of 2010 was the start of the Nothing But Love tour. Or, as it was known in the international press, the Nothing But Unnecessary Costume Changes, Bum Notes and Early Walkouts tour.

John Cale’s 1977 “Croydon chicken” incident
There is a famous quotation, most often attributed to Brian Eno and often rewritten, that only 1,000 people saw the Velvet Underground play live, but all that number subsequently went and formed a band. Not everyone who saw the Velvs’ founder member at The Greyhound in Croydon on 24 April, 1977 went on to decapitate a dead chicken.

An Audience with Iain Duncan Smith
Every bit as promising as it sounds. Sixty-seven people can attest to the fact that not all politicians are sell-outs.

Wilde: The Musical
Radio One breakfast show host fights instinct to write musical about Kim and goes for the Irish playwright. What could possibly go wrong? One night after opening, he found out.

End result? I Have Nothing to Declare But My Bankruptcy.

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