LONDON − An exhibition at London’s Jewish Museum aims to reveal an intimate side to a troubled star who was also, in the words of her older brother Alex, “simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent.”
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“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” brings together items from the late singer’s London childhood, her stage-school years and her short but stratospheric career in music − from her first guitar to a posthumous Grammy Award.
By the time she died in 2011 at the age of 27, Winehouse was a larger-than-life figure whose battles with drugs and alcohol, splashed across front pages around the world, sometimes seemed to overshadow her talent. The exhibition shows that she was also a young woman who loved music, loved London and loved her family.
“It’s a story that people don’t know about Amy, her family story,” museum chief executive Abigail Morris said Tuesday. “You can forget there’s a person behind the hype.”
Morris said the show was a natural for the Jewish Museum. Winehouse came from a close-knit Jewish family, and the museum is in Camden, the neighborhood where the singer lived for most of her adult life − where she saw gigs and played them, browsed in second-hand record stores and drank in pubs. It’s also the neighborhood where she died of accidental alcohol poisoning at her home in July 2011.
Assembled with help from Alex Winehouse and his wife Riva, the exhibition grew from the Winehouse family’s offer to donate one of Amy’s dresses. It expanded into a celebration of her Jewish roots, her family and her home city.
“The more we talked the more we realized the exhibition wasn’t going to be about her dresses and her clothes,” said curator Elizabeth Selby − though there are several outfits on display, from the shimmery blue dress Winehouse wore at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival to the tracksuits she preferred at home. “It’s about her roots and her family life.”
The exhibition, which opens today and runs to Sept. 15, traces the singer’s family tree back to great-great-grandfather Harris Winehouse, who came to England from Belarus in 1890. Like many other 19th-century migrants, he hoped to reach New York, but landed up in London’s East End.
There are photographs and mementoes from great-grandfather Ben Winehouse, an East End barber, and grandmother Cynthia, a glamorous figure who once dated jazz musician Ronnie Scott and taught Amy to read Tarot cards. Among the singer’s many tattoos was an image of her beloved grandmother.
The Winehouse clan eventually left the East End for a leafier London suburb, where Amy was born in 1983 to jazz-loving taxi driver Mitch and pharmacist Janis.
Alex Winehouse has said of the family’s Jewish heritage, “We weren’t religious, but we were traditional.”
“Whereas other families would go down to the seaside on a sunny day, we’d always go down to the East End.”
Displayed throughout the exhibition are captions written by Alex Winehouse about his demanding but loving sister, whom he recalled in a recent Observer newspaper interview as “annoying, frustrating, a pain in the bum. But she was also incredibly generous, very caring.”
Loved Snoopy and Dostoyevsky
The captions run alongside childhood photos, Amy’s school uniform, her Dr. Seuss books and comics featuring the Peanuts character Snoopy, whom young Amy adored.
Visitors will learn that as a young adult Winehouse read Charles Bukowski and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, liked Sudoku puzzles and obsessively kept wristbands, backstage passes and ticket stubs from the shows she played and attended.
There are also quotes − poignant now − from Amy’s application essay to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, which she attended as a youngster. “I want to be remembered for being an actress, a singer,” she wrote − adding that she also wanted “to sing in lessons without being told to shut up.”
Winehouse gained critical praise with her jazz-influenced 2003 debut album “Frank” and became a global smash three years later with “Back to Black,” a fusion of soul, jazz and 1960s pop with a 21st-century sensibility.
The exhibition includes albums from Winehouse’s collection that reveal an eclectic musical taste influenced by her family − from Frank Sinatra, whose songs her father crooned, to Thelonious Monk and other artists she heard through her jazz-loving brother.
Among the most revealing items is a list of favorite songs, written by the young Amy in looping schoolgirl handwriting, that ranges from Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and the Platters to Pearl Jam and the Ben Folds Five.
Her brother’s note says the tracks remained favorites to the end of her life. One song, Carole King’s “So Far Away,” was played at her funeral.
Selby said she hoped visitors to the exhibition would “come away with a sense of her as someone with a depth to her − much more than she was presented in the press.”