Music and fine art have crossed-over many times throughout history – in fact, they’ve done so since the beginning of human civilisation. Creating visual art – as a form of celebration – was often done in groups and would have been accompanied by singing, dancing, and drumming. So it’s no wonder that musicians today are still drawing inspiration from the famous paintings, sculptures, and drawings that are around them. And vice-versa.
We don’t know about you, but our playlists are in desperate need of an update. So here are some songs inspired by fine artists that we’re going to be downloading right away:
Jay-Z: Picasso Baby (2013)
“I’m the new Jean Michel
Surrounded by Warhols
My whole team ball
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel”
The music video for Picasso Baby features performance artist legend Marina Ambramović (who later fell out with the rapper regarding a charity donation) and the song references several other artists including Rothko, Basquiat, Warhol, Koons, and Bacon. We also would like to be the “new Jean Michel”, thank you very much.
David Bowie: Andy Warhol (1971)
“Like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show
Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall”
Bowie met Warhol for the first time before releasing this song, and performed it for Andy. It wasn’t clear whether Warhol liked it or not (close contacts of the artist say that he definitely didn’t but was too polite to say anything to Bowie). In the 1996 biographical film about Jean Michel Basquiat, Bowie performed the role of Warhol – the friend and mentor of Basquiat.
Don McLean: Vincent (1972)
“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul”
Perhaps the most famous song about an artist, Vincent is a tribute to Van Gogh and its opening lines reference the Dutch artist’s masterpiece The Starry Night. McLean was inspired to write the song after reading a biography about Van Gogh. In 2020, the handwritten lyrics for the song sold for $1.5 million at auction.
Paul McCartney and Wings: Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me) (1973)
“The grand old painter died last night
His paintings on the wall
Before he went he bade us well
And said goodnight to us all”
The legendary story behind the conception of this song is that Paul McCartney was challenged to write a song “about anything” by the actor Dustin Hoffman. After dinner, Hoffman showed McCartney a magazine which was covering the death and last words of Pablo Picasso, which the musician used as his inspiration for the song. Picasso was said to have said “drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore” before his passing.
Nat King Cole: Mona Lisa (1950)
“In a villa, in a little old Italian town
Lives a girl whose beauty shames the rose
Many yearn to love her, but their hopes are tumble down
What does she want, I guess nobody knows”
Mona Lisa won the Oscar in 1950 for Best Original Song, and Nat King Cole referred to it as one of his favourite recordings. Other famous musicians have covered the song including Elvis Presley, Shakin’ Stevens, and Cole’s daughter Natalie Cole.
Coldplay: Viva la Vida (2008)
“I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
Now the old king is dead, long live the king”
Surprisingly, this Coldplay hit is actually inspired by Frida Kahlo. Named after the final painting Kahlo ever made – “Viva la Vida, Watermelons” – the lyrics don’t reference the legendary artist, but lead singer Chris Martin did say that he was inspired by the pain the artist suffered in her life and the “boldness” of her final painting.
Paul Weller: Hopper (2017)
“In late night bars
The ghost of Hopper
Paints such melancholy colours
With sullen neon lights”
Inspired by the moody nighttime scenes of Edward Hopper, this song started off as a poem about being part of “the fabric of life” according to Paul Weller.
Manic Street Preachers: International Blue (2017)
“You wrote your autograph on the far side of the sky
You recorded the falling rain, but you never told us why
You painted with fire, only the ashes now remain
The monochrome desire, you left us too young to explain”
International Blue takes its inspiration from the French artist Yves Klein and his obsession with the colour blue (which led him to register the formula for a new blue paint called International Klein Blue). The opening lyric about writing “your autograph on the far side of the sky” makes reference to the famous story of how Klein and two friends sat one day on a beach and split the world up between them; one friend took language, one took the earth, and Klein took the blue sky.
Author: Verity Babbs