Paint as You Are

kurt cobain painting

Newly rediscovered painting by Kurt Cobain, 1990–1993. Footboy End of Music, LLC/courtesy of HBO.

Even before he began banging away on his first toy drum set and plastic guitar, Kurt Cobain loved to draw and paint. For Christmas, he would ask for art supplies. When he left home as a teen and had no money, he used board games from the Salvation Army as canvases. His mother, Wendy O’Connor, was sure he’d become an animator at Disney. “Well, that didn’t happen,” she told the director Brett Morgen, whose intimate documentary about the late Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, in theaters in April and on HBO May 4, uses stop-motion animation to bring Cobain’s sketches and doodles—not to mention his ceaselessly creative mind-set—to life. “Kurt would work in any medium: painting, sculpture, comic strips, poetry, fiction, sound collage,” Morgen says. “He had an innate gift to externalize his interior world. He had to get it out of him.” It was Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who gave Morgen the key to the storage locker where Cobain’s personal archive is kept. “Everyone knows Kurt as the lead singer of Nirvana,” Love told Morgen. “But few know that he was a prolific artist.” The director was, in fact, stunned to discover the paintings shown here, not to mention a cache of home movies, poems, journals, and audio recordings. “Kurt’s story was so deeply embedded in his work because he was so raw and visceral,” Morgen says, noting that after marrying Love, in 1992, following the band’s Australian tour for its blockbuster album Nevermind, Cobain holed up in their L.A. apartment to do heroin and paint. The work above reprises a theme that haunts many of Cobain’s childhood drawings: a marionette tethered to a phantom figure. “You can’t look at his paintings and not see self-portraits of an addict struggling,” Morgen says. The Virgin Mary piece was made using his blood mixed with Love’s. Frances Bean, who is herself a visual artist and the executive producer of the documentary, was 20 months old when her father committed suicide, in 1994. Looking through his boxes for the first time as the film was being made, “she had an immediate connection,” Morgen says. “Not just because they were her father’s, but also because they share an aesthetic.”