Up Close With Amy Winehouse At Contemporary Jewish Museum

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) is remembered for her smoky, emotional voice and for the variety of musical genres which she embraced. A party animal from North London, Winehouse mesmerized audiences with her electrically charged soul, R & B, jazz, and reggae recordings. 

Her tragic death by alcohol poisoning at age 27 ended one of music's most promising careers. We'll never know how far she might have gone. What we do know is that Winehouse was a tortured soul — the pain which drove her to drink herself to death can still be heard in her anguished voice. Starting today, the Contemporary Jewish Museum offers Winehouse fans a rare peek inside her private life. “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” will remain on view through November 1.

Winehouse's brother Alex provided CJM with items from her personal belongings and wrote many of the notes which are on display at the exhibition.

“This is not a shrine or a memorial to someone who has died,” Alex Winehouse wrote in a posting which can be seen at the show's entrance. “Amy might have been the most famous person in our family but she was not the center of it. We are a family with a colorful and eventful past, present and future.”

As her brother describes it, the show is “a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent who more than anything just wanted to be true to her heritage.”

CJM attendees will get to meet the entire Winehouse clan, beginning with Amy's immediate ancestors, who emigrated to the U.K. from Belarus during the latter half of the 19th century. Every member of the family is seen in a photographic family tree which spans several generations. We then meet Amy Winehouse herself.

She was a a regular girl who loved music and collected refrigerator magnets. She wore vintage clothing and was an avid reader. Costumes she wore on stage, outfits from her everyday life, books she read and vinyl records that she listened to are carefully laid out. It all serves to paint a simple yet revealing portrait of who Winehouse was and how she spent her time when she wasn't in the public eye.

A suitcase filled with old family photos that she went through only days before she died suggests the pain she was in towards the end of her life. A Jewish cookbook (a gift from her brother), underscores how regular a person she was beneath the public facade — Alex Winehouse shares that he bought Amy the book so she could learn how to make chicken soup.

“A Family Portrait” offers no insights into what drove her musical ambitions other than her love of music. Nor does it attempt to explain the demons which haunted and eventually killed her. It simply presents what was: a shining star with an amazing talent who burned brightly if all too briefly.            

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, through Nov. 1, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission, 415-655-7800.


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