Sunday, 24 June 2018

Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'

You're probably familiar with the extraordinary art of Robert Williams without even knowing it. His cover painting for Guns 'n' Roses Appetite for Destruction has been seen all over the world. 

The record has sold more that 14 million copies. A fact that Williams recalls with chagrin when recounting the minuscule payment he requested from the then-unknown band. 

 "When these people originally approached me they were unheard of and I considered them to be just another punk rock band."

Adding to the irritation, "They even used the name of the painting."

The image of a woman being assaulted by a robot (who is about to be dealt with by an avenging demon) was inevitably controversial. And it got Guns 'n' Roses into hot water, as Williams had warned them it would...

 "I gave them my best wishes, but I warned them that this was going to get them into a lot of trouble. And it got them into exactly the amount of trouble I thought it was going to get them into."

These and many other droll recollections are featured on a marvellous documentary available on DVD entitled Robert Williams: Mr Bitchin'. Incidentally, "bitchin' " is slang for great, cool, wonderful, the best....

I've been an ardent — and often astonished — fan of Williams's art since I first happened on it in the underground comics of my youth. So I was delighted to discover that someone had made a film about the man and his work.

It is a terrific, amusing and informative documentary which really brings Williams warmly to life as an engaging and sardonic — and hugely talented — figure.

He began his career doing hotrod art (custom cars are a passion he shares with his wife) and working with Big Daddy Roth. Roth created Rat Fink, an icon of my childhood...

Williams used to illustrate ads for Roth's merchandise, and his art was so extreme that magazines began to refuse to run them. 

But extremity is Williams's middle name. And that's one reason I love his stuff.

Then came the underground comics I mentioned, then Williams turned to concentrating on his astounding paintings. His work has always had a cult following, but now he is poised to assault the citadels of fine art, and may perhaps realise his ambition to be recognised as a "blue chip artist".

If after watching Mr Bitchin' you find you have an appetite not for destruction but for further exploration of his work, I urge you to buy one of the many books of his paintings which are available. (There is a merchandise page on his own website here.)

Oh, and one last anecdote from the documentary. Debbie Harry of Blondie is depicted in one of his paintings, which unusually for Williams, features no explicit nudity. 

"I had Miss Harry's dignity to think about," he says. Before adding mischievously, "I did have her keister showing."

Debbie Harry herself gamely remarks, "I really wouldn't have minded being portrayed sitting on a taco with no clothes on. But Robert is a gentleman."

(Image credits: the DVD cover is from Cinema Libre Studios. The Low Brow Art book cover is from Wim Words. The Zap cover is from Pinterest. The other images are from a very useful article in the the Guardian. Thank you, Guardian!)

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