Re: Sandow Birk and "The death of Kurt Cobain"
German Translation:

Betreff: Re: Sandow Birk-Kurt Cobain painting
Von: "Martin Fuchs"
An: Sandow Birk
Datum: 29.06.04 12:07:03

Dear Mr. Birk,
My name is Martin Fuchs, I'm from Hannover, Germany and for some years I'm working on my homepage at I was also (and in some way I'm still) a fan of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain (I've seen them live in 1989). Some years ago I found a picture of your Kurt Cobain-Painting in the german music magazine "testcard" ( and I used it to illustrate my websides about Nirvana ( I liked the painting because of the contradiction of the peaceful scene and the torn up head of Cobain surrounded by a halo/gloriole which some people didn't seam to notice. It is obvious that the painting doesn't show the real happenings because the body is in a different position than on the only known photograph of Cobains body, also the position of the shotgun and some other facts. But that's not important, because the painting doesn't romanticize the death of Cobain, it shows the cruel facts of a shotgun suicide, yet it shows some kind of respect to Cobain by surrounding him with a peaceful scene and a halo. I think it matches with my feelings about the suicide, on one hand it's sad to loose such a gifted artist, on the other hand I'm angry about the way he betrayed his fans and his family by taking the easy way out through suicide.
But this is not the reason for writing to you. For years nobody cared about the picture of your painting on my website, but since last year a lot of people started to complain about it. Some say that it's a kinky rotten photograph - not noticing the halo - and that I have a sick mind putting it on my website. Others say that Kurt is a legend and that I should not be allowed to dishonour him with the picture. Some days ago someone wrote in my guestbook that the picture is just tasteless and people who are painting those picture should be taken to a mental asylum - which I think is ironic because there are some beautiful paintings of prisons and mental asylums on your website - or sentenced to death and that he hates the man who painted it. There are some really crazy Nirvana-Fans out there who have problems with people who have a different opinion about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. So I'd like to know whether you have similar experiences with Nirvana-fans (and maybe Courtney, Krist and Dave) or not and what was your motivation for painting it. Is it a singular painting or part of a series? And where is it now, in a museum or a private collection or maybe still available?
Thank you very much for your patience with my e-mail and it would be very nice to hear from you.
Yours sincerely
Martin Fuchs, Germany

Betreff: Re: Sandow Birk-Kurt Cobain painting
Von: Sandow Birk <>
An: Martin Fuchs <>
Datum: 30.06.04 06:58:03

Dear Martin:

Thank you for your thoughtful letter and your perfect English. I'm sorry I don't speak German.

I found your letter to be very interesting and I wanted to answer you. I am very impressed to learn that my painting has been on your website and that people are writing in about it and that there are many different opinions. Yes, I have had that response before. So let me try to tell you more about it.

I am an artist in Los Angeles. Almost all of the artwork I do is based on artworks from the past. I studied art in college, including a year in Paris and in England, and I am very interested in the role of painting in society today and in the past.

The painting that I did of Kurt Cobain I painted just after he died. Like you, I was a fan of Nirvana, but not a "super fan". After Kurt Cobain died, they were showing so many images of him on television here in the US, and there were parades and vigils with candles in the parks and crowds of young people crying and praying and leaving notes to him. I really thought it was too much sympathy. I thought to myself, "Wait a minute.This guy who everyone says is a hero just shot his head off with a shotgun. That's a fact. That's not very heroic." I wanted to show the reality of what he did in contrast with the overflow of emotions that was in the air. I decided to do a painting about his death.

So I started looking at paintings from history and I came across this painting:

It is called "The Death of Chatterton" and it is by an English artist, Henry Wallis, 1856.

Chatterton was a young poet in the 1700's who many thought was the "voice of his generation", much like Kurt Cobain. Chatterton committed suicide in the attic room where he lived, and many people regretted his death, saying his death was a romantic tragedy, just like Kurt Cobain more than 200 years later.

So I decided to use this image with all its similarities, as the basis for my painting:

I read the newspaper and saw photos of his death in TIME magazine.The floor is the same pattern as the floor in the room where he killed himself, the clothes are the same as Kurt was wearing, and the things beside him are the things reported in the newspapers: a box with his ID and wallet and a note, I think. The newspaper said that his head was so destroyed that they could not identifiy him even by his teeth.
So I painted the reality of what happened that day.
Outside the window is a view of Seattle.
The halo was to symbolize all the things that people were saying about him.

This painting was first exhibited in San Francisco in 1995. At the opening, many people were very upset about it. Some people thought it was funny. A lot of different reactions.
The painting was sold to a private collector.

It was later selected to be part of a large exhibition that toured around museums in the USA. The show was called "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll: Rock And Roll Currents in Contemporary Art". It traveled to different cities for three years and everywhere it went this painting received attention, sometimes good, sometimes bad. The exhibition ended with a long showing at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame.
During its three years traveling around the USA, it was seen by thousands of people.

There is a book out about the exhibition. Here is what the book says about the painting:

"Sandow Birk approaches a subject with a keen respect for the integrity of iconography......
Birk views himself as an objective observer of the world around him. True to the violent and often ambivalent nature of sensationalist docudramas and TV talk shows, he has left little to the imagination in depicting Cobain's bloody remains in "The Death of Kurt Cobain, Seattle". The compositional source for this painting is "The Death of Chatterton" by the pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. Chatterton was an eighteenth-century poet who committed suicide at the age of seventeen. In Birk's variation of the original, a halo has been added because Cobain's fans tend to view him as a martyr."

I hope that this information helps, and I hope the postings on your website become more thoughtful about Kurt Cobain's death, about what he did to himself, and about what the painting might mean.

Sandow Birk

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