The Art of Kurt Cobain

Updated on December 15, 2017

"Thanks for the tragedy, I need it for my art."

Kurt Cobain rose to prominence in the early 1990's as he spearheaded grunge music into the mainstream musical scene. Most people who hear the name Kurt Cobain will immediately associate him with pessimistic lyrics and distorted guitar rifts, but years before he was ever present in the music scene he was showing artistic promise as a child prodigy of the arts. His taste in art started off as most children's would: he enjoyed drawing pictures of famous Disney characters and his work was light-hearted and simple, most of the art-work was not original designs but imitations of Cobain's favourite cartoons. His grandfather Leland Cobain still possesses some of Cobain's childhood drawings. According to Leland Cobain, his wife Iris was also an amateur painter and encouraged and taught the young Cobain to pursue the arts.

A drawing of Donald Duck done by Cobain in 1973, age six. Previously owned by his grandfather Leland Cobain.
A drawing of Donald Duck done by Cobain in 1973, age six. Previously owned by his grandfather Leland Cobain. | Source

The Artist into Adolescence

As Kurt Cobain has mentioned many a time, his parents divorce when he was eight years old affected him dramatically. He enjoyed creating hand-drawn holiday cards for his family and recreating iconic images of his time such as the Fender logo and Iron Maiden mascots. His art begins to have become less traditional when he was in high school, where Cobain created paintings of abstract landscapes and alien-like creatures. These images showcase that Cobain's powerful, yet disturbed imagination first appeared as early on as age 16. The first documented case of his imagery going more towards an even darker route appears on a Fecal Matter Illiteracy Will Prevail demo tape match book when Cobain was 18 years old and in his first band. The image features a stick man who is hacking himself up with an axe, and the caption above the image reads "Mr Sunshine Hacks Himself Up". This is also the first time we see glimpses of Cobain's fascination with the human body, something that became even more apparent in his later art works as well as his music, such as with the release of In Utero in 1993 which features an anatomically-correct view of the inside of an angel.

Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet

Cut myself on angel hair and baby's breath

Broken hymen of 'Your Highness', I'm left black

Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back

— Lyrics from "Heart-Shaped Box" by Nirvana
Fecal Matter match box from 1985
Fecal Matter match box from 1985 | Source

The Later Works of Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain continued to make art well into his adult life until his untimely death in 1994. He began branching out into different mediums of art, creating sculptures and collages with whatever seemed to intrigue him at the time. Anatomy, as mentioned before, was something that was prominently featured in the art of Cobain. Dolls and other plastic toys were also a big part of Cobain's art, possibly because of their association with anatomy. Although most of his mixed-media creations could simply be waved off as just being "odd", his collages sometimes reflected a his self-image and his response to becoming famous. One collage that Cobain created contains a cut-out image from a NIRVANA comic book, with an emaciated body drawn underneath it. Above it, a cut-out from a poem by Alicia Ostriker reading

Passing that fiery tree—if only she could

Be making love,
Be making a painting,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe

Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow flames—

Perhaps this is Cobain's way of showing that he was not completely okay or ready for the effects that fame had on him. The poem appears to show that the author wishes they could do doing something else, and it is very possible that Cobain had tasted enough of fame to warrant him longing for simpler things like making love and painting, or that he would rather be doing anything else — like exploding and speeding speeding through the universe — than dealing with fame. The emaciated body underneath the comic is quite contrasting as well, and may be a comment about how the media viewed Cobain versus how Cobain viewed himself or how fame had affected him poorly.

In 1994, Cobain took his own life. It is largely implied that his inability to deal with his own fame was the cause of this. Looking at pieces like the one below, it's very easy to see why this could have been the case.

A collage that Cobain had created of himself featuring a poem by Alicia Ostriker and a cut-out from a NIRVANA comic. Featured in Journals.
A collage that Cobain had created of himself featuring a poem by Alicia Ostriker and a cut-out from a NIRVANA comic. Featured in Journals. | Source

Do you believe that fame played a large part in Cobain's untimely death?

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© 2017 Michelle Medici


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