10 Great Songs About Famous Visual Artists

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Even reigning glam aliens have idols. Even top hip hop impresarios obsess over that one particular painting. There is no shortage of guitar strumming, rapping, and singing about art at large, but we’re keen on odes and tributes to specific heroes of art history. From David Bowie’s serenade to “Andy Warhol” to the Modern Lovers’ investigations into “Pablo Picasso” and why he “never got called an asshole,” here are a few notable tracks inspired by famous visual artists. Did we miss your favorite? Drop us a comment.

David Bowie — “Andy Warhol”

Twenty five years before finally playing Warhol in Basquiat in 1996, David Bowie strummed out this flamenco-tinged, spacey acoustic tribute to Andy on Hunky Dory. Listen to the sweet longing way Bowie croo-oo-oons his name, the double entendre signifiers — “I’d like to be a gallery/Put you all inside my show.” Feel the love. The story goes that after Bowie played the song for Warhol, they said nothing for a while. Then Warhol said, “I like your shoes.” And that was that.

The Modern Lovers — “Pablo Picasso”

There are other amusing artist-inspired songs in Jonathan Richman’s repertoire — “Vincent Van Gogh,” “Salvador Dalí” and “No One Was Like Vermeer” — but this ’70s John Cale-produced proto-punk tune deals with a most pertinent matter. Mainly, why in all of Pablo Picasso’s shameless machismo and physical… let’s be blunt… ugliness, he was still pulling teenage mistresses and various such. “Well some people try to pick up girls/And get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso/He could walk down your street/And girls could not resist his stare and/So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” Why indeed. Such mystery!

Don McLean — “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)”

Like “American Pie,” the singer-songwriter’s 1971 tribute to Vincent Van Gogh was a big chart-topping success. The ditty alternates between obvious visual cues — “Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/Swirling clouds in violet haze” — and odd appropriation of the artist’s intense mental trauma — “How I understand what you tried to say to me” and “But I could have told you, Vincent/This world was never meant for one/As beautiful as you.” It’s all somewhere just between sweet and saccharine, empathetic and narcissistic.

John Cale — “Magritte”

A gorgeous song off John Cale’s 2003 album HoboSapiens, “Magritte” pins down the feeling of being wholly affected by an artist, of remembering and forgetting and remembering that effect, again and again. The lyrics reference Magritte’s tropes and are Surrealist themselves — “Upstairs there’s a canvas stretched/For umbrellas and bowler hats/Everybody knows René did that/Often we saw Magritte/Pinned to the edges of vision.” It’s quiet and haunting, and then the strings swell with a tense, underlining hint of cacophony. Cale wails softly. This is love.

The Manic Street Preachers — “Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)”

This anthemic alt-rock chanty off the Manic Street Preachers’ 1996 album Everything Must Go is simple and appropriately abstract, as far as lyrics go — “Who sees the interiors like young Willem once did/Your beautiful triangle of distortion.” Hmm, why, yes, Willem de Kooning’s paintings do often seem like split apart, mangled, quivering innards of things. Or were the MSP interpreting something more cheerful?

The Stranglers — “Goodbye Toulouse”

The 1977 ode to Toulouse Lautrec is drenched in nostalgia. The references to the decadence of Lautrec’s time period are sparse but potent. You can imagine these Brits wandering through Lautrec’s old “streets… paved with love,” haunting the cafes that “tell a tale/of saddened millionaires” and crying like punks. Goodbye, Toulouse. Goodbye, sexy sad Paris of yore.

Sufjan Stevens — “The Vivian Girls Are Visited In The Night By Saint Dargarius”

The soundscape in this 2006 instrumental track unfurls like a fairy tale, fitting to the inner world of outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger’s scrolls and thousands upon thousands of notebook pages told an epic tale of the Vivian Girls, a child nation at war with an evil arm; you could say that the track’s high distorted bells sound like the cries of little girls or that the thick, repeating sew-saw sound recalls an image of giant, flapping butterfly wings. Do you hear it?

Jay-Z – “Most Kingz”

Hard-knock-lifer turned superstar Jay-Z interprets Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Charlie Parker-inspired Most Kings as fame’s warning tale, namechecking everyone from Malcolm X to Kurt Cobain, serving wisdom — “See success is like suicide/Suicide, it’s a suicide/When you succeed prepare to be crucified.” The sentiment is there, but Chris Martin’s soft melodic whining doesn’t do the painting’s text justice — “Most kings get their heads cut off.”

Rufus Wainwright — “Art Teacher”

Ah, Wainwright’s innocent, devastating love song; a school girl falling for her art teacher, swooning at the Metropolitan Museum — “He asked us what our favorite work of art was/But never could I tell it was him.” It all really wants to make you giggle as he namechecks “the Rubens and Rembrandts” and “the John Singer Sargents” until it doesn’t, with the double entendre — “He told me he liked Turner/Never have I turned since then/No, never have I turned to any other man.” Pass the tissues, please.

KRS-One — “Out for Fame”

The KRS-One classic is essentially a musical equivalent of a tribute wall, serenading the social significance of graffiti and namechecking COPE2, TATS Cru members, NICER, etc, etc, etc. With hip hop and graffiti culture entwined, the track talks of hip hop selling out and graffiti being the saving grace — “Graffiti isn’t corporate so it gets no respect/Hasn’t made a billion dollars for some corporation yet.” That was 1995. Before David Choe and Facebook. Before Banksy. Ah, the old days.