In the media frenzy that followed the death of Amy Winehouse in 2011 at the age of 27, she was branded with many epithets: “musical genius”, “drugs casualty” and often, with a stab of painful irony, “the ‘Rehab’ singer” – but “devout Jewess” was nowhere among them. It may have been widely known that Winehouse came from a north London Jewish family but it still comes as a surprise to find an exhibition dedicated to her at the Jewish Museum in London.
Indeed, Winehouse emerges no more Jewish from the show than she was before. There are photos from her brother Alex’s bar mitzvah celebration but no mention of a bat mitzvah for Winehouse herself. A Jewish cookbook she was given (with the idea of learning to make chicken soup) was barely used. It’s possible to imagine Winehouse singing “My Yiddishe Momme” – even giving it her own jazzy, melancholy twist – but it’s hard to imagine her ever becoming one.
But the show never tries too hard to insist on her Jewishness – and it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t the point. Its subtitle, “A Family Portrait”, is crucial. Instigated by her family, it is small, unpretentious and largely comprised of unremarkable tchotchkes from Winehouse’s earlier years – records, photographs, a guitar, Snoopy books – and only a few tokens dating from Winehouse’s years of stardom, such as dresses worn in music videos and performances.
“This is not a shrine or a memorial,” announces the first of the texts written – affectionately but unsentimentally – by Alex. Later he describes “a small selection of the records and CDs Amy accrued, many of which she stole from me”. Her grandmother Cynthia, a voguish jazz lover who once dated Ronnie Scott, emerges as a formative figure – one photo revealing a familiar streak of white in her hair. “My mother’s side is perfectly fine,” writes Amy in an essay, aged 14. “My dad’s family are the singing, dancing, all nutty musical extravaganza.” The news (shortly before Amy’s death) that her cab-driver father Mitch was launching a music career at the age of 59 seems to bear this out, though there is no mention of that here.
The gaggle of international press swarming the show’s preview (speaking everything from Portuguese to Arabic) attests to Winehouse’s enduring global stardom but anyone coming in search of a lavish celebration along the lines of the V&A’s blockbuster David Bowie show will be disappointed. Rather, the tone is one of a family reclaiming a daughter. The choice of venue starts to make sense after all.
Winehouse’s fame reached its peak at a time when British celebrity mania was at its height, and the tabloids feasted unfettered on tales and lurid images of her decline. Arguably no British public figure has ever suffered a more public downfall – simultaneously venerated and denigrated on a daily basis.
Placing our heroes on a pedestal the better to mock them has long been a national sport that death does nothing to quell – witness the row this week in Norwich over a statue immortalising Freddie Mercury as a gorilla – but Winehouse suffered it worse than most. She died in July 2011, the same month that the phone-hacking scandal broke and the News of the World was shut down. The subsequent Leveson inquiry into press ethics has left the press chastened and the public more squeamish about the intrusive hounding of stars – but for Winehouse it came too late.
Looking over her personal effects in this touchingly intimate exhibition, it seems no bad thing – even healthy – to be reminded now of her ordinariness. In the museum’s foyer on preview day, a group of schoolchildren being whisked to other parts of the building, presumably on a Religious Studies day out, chattered excitedly, heads turned by images of celebrity – “Amy Winehouse! Amy Winehouse!” Pausing over a vitrine showcasing one of the singer’s outfits, a girl observed with a faint air of disappointment: “To me it just looks like a shoe.” Perhaps that’s the point.
Until September 15; www.jewishmuseum.org.uk
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