Art. History. Culture.
If you like heavy metal and High Renaissance, boy do I have a treat for you! I was in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend and had the pleasure of attending a Guns N’ Roses concert. The band is currently in the middle of a nine show residency at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Hillary, my dear BFF and former college roommate, is a die-hard G N’ R fan. I agreed to go with her to the show because, while Axl is old and quite bloated now, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. While I confess that I my level of fanaticism was not at the height of Hillary’s, the concert was so spectacular that I now find myself in a rejuvenated obsession with Guns N’ Roses. I expected to rock out to some old hits but did not expect to be blown away by the sheer awesomeness that had everything to do with Axl’s iconic voice. That, and the band was on stage for damn near three hours. Prior to the show I was more of generic fan. I knew and loved their greatest hits, own just one of their albums, my favorite song was “Patience,” and I used to find Axl attractive, c. 1987, in a bad-dude-you’d-never-bring-home-to-mom sort of way. Exhibit A:
Since my return from Vegas on Tuesday, I’ve been playing Guns N’ Roses nonstop. I’m looking up videos on YouTube every chance I get, along with Axl Rose interviews and clips of the original band (if you live under a rock, the original lineup broke up circa 1996 and been replaced with all new guys with the exception of Axl). Rediscovering all of their material has been rather exciting and I’ve found some new favorite songs in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Civil War” and especially “Estranged.” This little phase feels similar to studying art history – here I am transporting myself to another time, now being accompanied by awesome music instead of compelling visual art. In my mind I’m a rebellious high school kid, it’s about 1989, Guns N’ Roses is still unified, Axl is younger, thinner, still attractive and no one is on drugs. In real life I was way too young to know or care about Guns N’ Roses when they debuted in 1987 because I was small child then. No harm in pretending though.
As tribute to Guns N’ Roses and this little phase I’m going through, I’m doing a small study of album covers. More specifically, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II by Guns N’ Roses. These two separate albums were released simultaneously by the band in 1991. Both album covers feature the same detail of Raphael’s famous The School of Athens fresco in which an anthology of philosophical figures are depicted together in a classical Greek setting. The work is an example of virtuoso rendering of perspective in the repeated architectural motifs. Along with the decorative references to classical antiquity, the impressive scale and the careful observance of the human figure, this fresco embodies the artistic principles of the High Renaissance.
This is one of four frescoes fixed to the wall of the “Raphael Room” in the Vatican, each representing different branches of knowledge. The School of Athens, one of Raphael’s most famous works, of course represents philosophy. Philosophy, in Raphael’s High Renaissance era, was considered one of the greatest forms of genius. This painting pays tribute to the biggest names, placing them together in a sort of academic paradise. In the array of figures gathered in this imaginary school, Plato and Aristotle are the focus; strolling down the corridor chit-chatting about the meaning of the universe, they are featured in the center and framed by an arch in the background. Plato is on the left wearing a red mantle, Aristotle is on the right wearing a blue mantle. Also featured are other famous philosophers in Ptolemy, Socrates, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Democritus and so on. Many of the figures are identified with some certainty but still others are unknown. The two figures detailed on the Use Your Illusion album covers are two such unidentified persons. Within the large scene, these two figures appear in the mid-ground of the composition underneath the large statue on the right side.
The figure on the right seems to be another philosopher, pensively slumped over with his head resting on his hands, a trademark pose of philosophers and poets in the visual arts. Painters would often use variations of the head resting on the hands position to convey melancholic genius. A shadow is slightly cast over his face, darkening his brow and frowning mouth. The figure on the left appears to be a younger, more eager student. His hair is strangely blowing to the side as he stands haphazardly on one foot, his leg crossed over the other to use as a writing surface as he bends over to scribble an important thought into his notebook.
According to a little trivia I found on the internet, the cover art for both Use Your Illusion albums was designed by Mark Kotsabi, who created a replica of this School of Athens detail and reworked it into more of a graphic design version. The figure writing in a notebook is now a black and white cartoon while the rest of the composition remains a grainy print of Raphael’s version but with different color. Apparently Axl Rose liked it so much he made it the cover for both albums, changing only the color to differentiate between the two. Use Your Illusion I is in saturated warm colors of red and yellow. The figure writing in the notebook remains black and white except for a red and yellow pencil. Use Your Illusion II is in cool colors of blue and purple, again with the writing figure black and white except for his pencil echoing the rest of the album’s colors.
This is not the first time a band or musical artist has used a piece of high art for their album cover. Coldplay has used Delcroix, Rammstein has used Rembrandt, Heart has used Magritte, Joni Mitchell has used Van Gogh, Jay-Z has used Lorenzi’s Hellenistic inspired sculpture, Madonna has used Warhol and even Bow Wow has used Manet. The correlation here is obvious. That Guns N’ Roses used the same Raphael painting for two seperate albums may seem like an over the top bromance, but not so. The Guns N’ Roses bromance with Raphael is not unique. Music and the visual arts form a very natural relationship. Visual art appeals to the human soul through images that provoke raw emotion. Whether these images are beautiful or terrifying it does not matter. We relate to them because they speak to our senses and experiences. Music does the same thing but with words and sounds instead of images. Music is another powerful emotional art form that can either convey our moods, change our moods or enhance our moods.
It doesn’t seem to be common knowledge why Guns N’ Roses chose to use this particular work of art for the cover of both Use Your Illusion albums. If it had certain meaning for the band or for Axl, one can only speculate. Perhaps they were attempting to liken themselves to the same level of genius as the classical philosophers. Or maybe their use of this image is meant to represent a philosophical quality in their lyrics, as indicated by the figure writing something in a notebook. Whatever the case, this is just one of the countless examples of the relationship between visual art and music. It is, as Wassily Kandinsky theorized, a soulful connection that cannot be broken.
Finally, I leave you with some tunage. Guns N’ Roses always had a penchant for writing long-ass songs. I appreciate that because it feels more classic and less like the catchy, limited attention span garbage we hear on the radio today. “Estranged” is my new favorite song, not because it’s 9 minutes long, but because it pretty much rocks my world, especially after hearing them play it live. Slash’s haunting guitar riffs are epic, as is that range of Axl’s unforgettable voice. Here’s the YouTube vid:
If you don’t have the patience for “Estranged,” why not check out Axl’s trademark sideways sway moves and some hip action, not to mention the best whistling solo ever known to man? Here’s the “Patience” YouTube vid: