John Lennon and Yoko Ono created a brand of fame 40 years ago that remains strikingly contemporary – shades of which can be seen in both the earnest activism of U2’s Bono to the self-obsessed flashbulb frenzy surrounding today’s vapid starlets.
Fed by, and feeding off of the media, the couple catapulted their message of peace across the world with the unshakable belief that we would not only listen but care what they had to say.
It’s an effect that’s highlighted in the latest exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a multimedia show that follows on the heels of the museum’s popular Andy Warhol and Yves St-Laurent exhibitions of the past few months.
The show’s mix of musical, political and artistic memorabilia follow the couple’s relationship through to Lennon’s murder in 1980 - documented through 140 drawings, unpublished photographs, videos, films, and artworks - and continues with some of Ono’s more recent work.
Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Bed-In at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Imagine: The peace ballad of John and Yoko, ties the couple’s message into its historical context.
Visitors are reminded that in 1969, Berkeley students were rioting, the Vietnam War was at its peak, Pierre Trudeau was pushing through the precursor to our rights charter, the Omnibus Bill, and in Quebec, the Quiet Revolution was in full swing.
There are also some re-created art works from Ono’s 1966 exhibition at London’s Indica Gallery and their playfulness and positivity is carried through to this show.
Visitors - accompanied by a near-constant soundtrack of Lennon’s and Yoko voices in conversation - can play Lennon’s Imagine on a white piano, sit down to a chess game on Ono’s all-white sets and hang wishes on her Wish Tree installation.
But the tongue-in-cheek humour in the couple’s work throughout the late 60s and through the 1970s often falls flat, feeling instead like sanctimonious inside jokes being broadcast to the world.
Still, when stripped of the trappings of global celebrity and political message, the pieces can have a well-crafted simplicity.
Lennon’s sketches of the couple’s marriage ceremony and subsequent coupling are playful, charming and honest. ‘Glass keys to open the skies’ is heart-breaking in its hopeful sweetness. A set of large glass keys are displayed alongside a quote by Ono: “I can never give up on life as long as the sky is there.”
This exhibition will be popular. It’s been widely advertised and will be accompanied by messages of peace recorded by Ono and broadcast throughout Montreal’s metro system. People will be drawn by its positive message and its pop culture art.
But even Lennon, near the end of his life, seemed to be distancing himself from his own message.
In an interview quoted in the exhibition’s documentation he says: “It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the People’ then it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t.”
That’s a message that should also be heard.
Imagine show runs through to June 21, 2009 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is free to the public.