This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
If you were around in the early 2000s, you might remember Pete Doherty, the messy lead singer of British rock bands Babyshambles and The Libertines. He struggled, very publicly, with heroin addiction and once squirted a syringe of blood at an MTV camera. At the time, he was engaged to supermodel Kate Moss. The duo quickly became the target of a media frenzy, as the public ate up the highs and lows of their relationship to each other – and their various drugs.
What you certainly don’t associate Doherty with is art - but that’s precisely what he’s been focusing on since the end of his music career. His paintings, all created between 2005 and 2022, are now being exhibited at the Janine Bean Gallery in Berlin from the 10th of September until the end of the year. The most expensive piece costs - wait for it - €35,000.
Doherty isn’t the only celebrity who’s got into painting after their main gig was up – there’s Sylvester Stallone, Courtney Love and even former President George W. Bush. But how do we tell if an artist is the real deal or just an attention seeker? We asked Harriet Häußler, art historian at the Free University of Berlin, to review his work for us.
VICE: So, how exactly do you evaluate an exhibition?
Harriet Häußler: It's always the same process. First, I find out what’s being exhibited, and then I look into the artist. What’s their background? What influences have they been exposed to?
This time was easy, I already knew Pete Doherty. So, I was primarily interested in how the art was being displayed in the room, since Doherty has been involved the decision making.
At the entrance, you first see a sculpture associated with Great Britain. The exhibit opens with “national pride”, so to speak. At the very back, there's a cabinet where Doherty presents his deepest thoughts. There's something very intimate about it, and that's exactly why he wanted to show it last.
How do you distinguish good art from bad art?
There is only one objective rule, really: Is this original work or is it an imitation of others? In other words, is the artist a copyist or a genuine creator? Everything else is subjective.
So, is Pete Doherty a copyist or a creator?
Pete Doherty is a creator. He’s created something new and individual here. Of course, you can recognise influences from other artists, but it’s not an imitation. He’s making something new. Thematically, he mixes things like poetics, politics, identity, visual arts and music. He uses mixed methods: fine drawings, stencils, collages, brush drips. Sometimes he also works with atypical materials, like blood.
Do you think the blood refers to his past addictions?
As a former drug addict who used to inject himself, he certainly has quite a personal connection to it. But blood has always been a theme in art.
Blood was the first colour of mankind. Think of the prehistoric cave paintings, for example. In the Middle Ages, painting with blood and other bodily fluids was forbidden because they were considered God-given. In the Renaissance, this prohibition was lifted and animal blood was used.
Since then, artists have repeatedly painted with bodily fluids. Andy Warhol's Oxidation Paintings are very well known: Warhol used copper paint on multiple canvases and then urinated on them. The chemical reactions caused the colours to change.
How would you describe Pete Doherty's style?
Abstract figurative. Doherty shows both conscious and unconscious figures in his paintings: He draws figures in the background and then drips paint over them. The conscious figures appear restrained, while the unconscious foreground is wilder.
The unconscious partially overshadows the conscious; Doherty does that quite often. He writes over his own old work. He creates something and later, creates something new from it - but I don't want to psychoanalyse that and relate that to his life.
What themes do you recognise in the sculpture?
You see a woman's body wearing a glowing lampshade on her head, and a guitar leaning on her legs. Her lower half is covered by what looks like a flag. The colours of this garment – red, white and blue – are, of course, the colours of Great Britain, but also the colours of France. Did you know that Doherty now lives by the sea in Normandy with his French wife? Which flag does he feel he belongs to today? Probably both.
The shape of the robe reminds me of the rugged waves breaking on the shores in Normandy. And when you see it like that, the lampshade almost looks like a lighthouse, which is supposed to help sailors arrive safely. I think Doherty is also looking for his home, his identity. The guitar, obviously, is a symbol of the long years he spent travelling the world as a musician with this instrument - perhaps without a real home.
Do you see any other references?
Doherty is also concerned with Britain's historical past. The artwork to the right of the sculpture shows an old poster for a Libertines concert. The information about the location and time of the gig has been stencilled onto the paper again in red, white and blue. It also says "Hong Kong" in the same colours.
The whole thing sits on top of an old ad for a Chinese tobacco brand. It immediately makes me think of the Opium Wars, which resulted in Hong Kong becoming a British colony. Of course, I also think of the millions of Chinese people who became heavily addicted to opium because of it. Britain and dependency: That’s where Pete Doherty finds himself.
Can you tell, from the artworks, that Doherty has led an eventful life?
No, I wouldn't put it that way. Of course, we can see his blood - and in one picture there’s also the phone number of his dealer. But most of all, you can see what kind of person Doherty is: someone who is constantly working, who turns his thoughts around, back and forth, again and again. You can't just reduce him to his drug-fuelled past. He's far too multi-layered for that.
Where do you find evidence of this incessant thinking?
In Doherty's paintings, an incredible number of methods and themes collide. He tore down posters, redesigned them, scraped layers off and reassembled them. He adds new themes with his stencils and handwriting, and makes connections that did not exist before. He is incessantly searching for new levels. It’s here, particularly, that we can see his multi-layered nature; it’s always about searching, often for his own identity.
How is Doherty's art different from other contemporary art?
Doherty's art doesn't seem contemporary at all. These works could just as well have been exhibited 60 years ago. Contemporary art works a lot digitally and with social media – we don't find that here at all. On the contrary, his art is more of a throwback to times gone by.
Many famous people turn to painting when their careers cool off. Is celebrity art enriching the art world? Or would it be irrelevant if its creators weren’t famous?
Only a few visual artists have been equally successful in other fields. But being a famous singer, politician or actor doesn’t - necessarily - make you bad at art. But you’re right: Most art by famous people is only known because they’re already successful. Whether that makes the art irrelevant is not for me to judge.
Is the art we see here "good"?
Yes, I think the art exhibited here is really good. Pete Doherty is an artist through and through, on so many levels. I find it remarkable how he combines poetry, music and visual art; he can definitely hold his own artistically among other artists.