Though his son says he “doodles” every day, Leonard Cohen is only now opening his visual archives to the public
Sometime this morning, with dawn just a faint eastern glow, Leonard Cohen made himself a pot of coffee. And once the coffee was done, he took his mug to a favourite table, sat down in front of a notepad or sketchbook or computerized drawing tablet, and began to make art, as he does every day.
Cohen, of course, is one of Canada’s most revered songwriters. Those with longer cultural memories will also know him as a novelist and poet of considerable consequence. But over the past few months, with exhibitions in Manchester, Toronto, and now Vancouver, another side of this iconic figure has begun to emerge: the visual artist.
Cohen has often provided his own album artwork, but it’s only now, in his 74th year, that he’s opening his visual archives to the public. And while revelations are few—his art is essentially a sympathetic commentary on the songs, and the life, that we already know—the pleasure he takes in drawing is readily apparent.
No one’s taking this body of work too seriously. Even Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son and the de facto curator of Leonard Cohen Artworks, which runs at Linda Lando Fine Art from Friday (December 5) until December 31, is unwilling to paint his dad as a multimedia genius. Yet, as Adam points out in a phone call from his Los Angeles home, the same qualities that animate Leonard Cohen’s songs—warmth, colour, immediacy, and sharp observation—are present in his visual art.
“My father’s really just doodling,” he says frankly. “But even when he’s doing the equivalent of verbal doodling, at the dinner table, it’s often wonderful or humorous or poignant or elegant. So I think it’s a high compliment to say that someone who is appearing to make little effort creates such powerful evocations—and one that I have no problem dispensing on my father, because he really is one of those characters who, with seemingly little effort, can dazzle.”
The women in his life are regularly featured in Cohen senior’s drawings, and he has an affinity for brightly coloured depictions of domestic interiors. But it’s arguable that Leonard’s favourite subject is his own characterful face, with its strong features, hooded eyes, and deeply folded seams.
“He’s done hundreds of self-portraits,” Adam explains. “He started them when he was on a trip to India, and he would do one every morning, both as an exercise and to combat whatever difficulty he was having in blackening pages the way he wanted to. And like the rest of us, he realized that if he was going to make himself the protagonist on paper, it was going to have the maximum effect, and humour, if he wasn’t making himself look like Clark Gable.”
The self-portraits show that Cohen shares some traits with another part-time illustrator, John Lennon, and it’s not surprising that the late Beatle’s widow, Yoko Ono, was one of the first to argue that Leonard should go public with his art. Cohen’s fellow Buddhist Philip Glass is another supporter, having composed music to accompany giant projections of his friend’s drawings. But it’s not only friendship that prompts their appreciation: Cohen’s best pieces can stand comparison to the visual artists whose work has inspired him.
“I know he’s a big fan of [Henri] Matisse, and he always has been,” says Adam. “In fact, a couple of years ago ”˜Dance Me to the End of Love’ was turned into a book where Matisse drawings were attached to almost each sentence of the song. It’s a terrific and beautiful book—the elegance and the whimsy of my father’s writing and the drawings and pictures and paintings of Matisse really do resonate with each other.
“It was the first time I was forced to see a similarity between the two artists,” he adds. “Not being an art expert, though, I’d say that if there was to be an ancestor or a provenance, [Jean] Cocteau is probably closer to an artistic match.”
Like Leonard Cohen, Cocteau mastered several different media, and as a visual artist was interested in lightness of touch and spontaneity of line. Neither would be considered a master draftsman; neither can be dismissed out of hand. And in both cases their art serves more as commentary on their very full lives than as something to be considered entirely on its own.
“My dad wasn’t planning on ever publishing any of these drawings,” Adam points out. “His ambitions weren’t to be remembered alongside any of the greats, visually speaking. And so he permitted himself to really draw what he felt like drawing, and to annotate the drawings with whatever he felt was appropriate—notes that are often funny, self-effacing, and typical of his sense of humour.
“And that’s what I think is remarkable about my father’s drawing,” he adds, noting that Leonard Cohen Artworks might surprise those who still think of his dad as primarily an eloquent prophet of doom. “His voice is evident in his art. Many, many visual artists struggle with that, let alone artists who have full-blown careers in other milieus. So, more than anything, what I find admirable about it is how that distinct voice of his is really present—and he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.”