In 1969, John Ono Lennon drew the Bag One Portfolio as a wedding gift for his wife, Yoko Ono Lennon.
It contains a Poet’s Page containing John’s surreal abecedarium, a series of drawings representing scenes from their marriage in Gibraltar (Bag One, I Do, Exchange of Rings), one from the subsequent Bed-In (Bed In For Peace), one showing their faces (John and Yoko), and eight erotic motifs.
The trial print runs were done by Aldo Crommelynck, who was Picasso’s printer in Paris. However, as time was short, printing was actually carried out at the Curwen Studio in London. Lennon monitored the production precisely and added a sheet containing a poem, which he wrote straight onto the zinc plate at the printer’s on June 18, 1969. What is more, with only a few strokes of the pen, he designed an additional fly sheet for the cover of the series showing himself and Yoko Ono embracing – Bag One.
Parisian couturier Ted Tapidus designed a white plastic bag with a zipper as a portfolio for the sheets. Bag One and the John Lennon signature were printed on the vinyl portfolio.
The Bag One portfolio was presented for the first time on January 15, 1970 at the London Arts Gallery in New Bond Street and went on sale for 550 pounds each. Next day, Scotland Yard officers confiscated the eight erotic prints. All the newspapers reported the scandal. Eugene Schuster, the American owner of the gallery, won the legal case involving the lithographs on April 1970. His defense counsel had cited the example of Picasso’s erotic works, which had not been confiscated as pornography.
On March 14th, Bag One was shown in Dusseldorf, Germany. In America, the Lee Nordness Gallery in New York was the first to show the 15 lithographs. The vernissage was attended by Salvador Dali, who John and Yoko had met in Paris in March 1969. No prints were seized at any of these exhibitions, but at the Merrill Chase Gallery in Oak Brook near Chicago, on March 28, 1970, five prints were confiscated on grounds of alleged obscenity. The Du Page County state’s attorney’s office ordered the prints to be burned.
It was easy for John to talk about being receptive to new ideas but the discipline to begin projects and see them through to completion was often another story. When in 1968 I suggested the lithographs, John, like I, had no idea that the project would become such an involved and drawn out affair. It was not until over a year later that the lithographs were finally published, and a second set based on the Chinese I Ching symbols were never completed.
I kept in touch with John and Yoko after the Coventry Acorn Event [June 15th 1968], but the first attempts I made to interest John in lithography met with only a vague, distant response. The technicalities of the process seemed alien to him, accustomed as he was to the spontaneity and simplicity of cartoon drawing. John had always considered basic drawing, doodling and sketching his forte, as they best suited his impulsive creative methods; he liked to translate the image from his head to the paper as rapidly as possible and with the least amount of fuss. Often his drawing, like his rhetoric, could not keep pace with his meteoric rush of ideas.
John was slightly more enthusiastic about the project when, with the help of publisher Ed Newman and the Curwen Studio, I devised a way to shortcut the complicated procedure of working directly onto stone blocks or zinc plates. By using specially treated “litho paper”, which I had sent out to his house along with an array of suitable brushes, litho ink, and crayons, John would be able to draw or paint in his usual manner. The images could later be transferred from the paper onto sensitized zinc plates by means of an advanced technical process, and the lithographs printed in the traditional way.
Nothing was heard from John for three or four months after the materials were sent to him. I had all but given up, certain that they were lying forgotten in some dark closet. But several weeks later after John and Yoko had returned to England from their wedding and the Amsterdam Bed-In I had a phone call from Yoko. John had taken the litho paper with him, had made a series of drawings of the marriage and honeymoon, and was now anxious to see how they would look as lithographs.
The collection of work that I later picked up from John was a veritable potpourri of paintings, ink line drawings, cartoons, and doodles. Yoko was the main subject, there were many portraits and nudes of her. There were also a few evocative ink sketches of scenes such as the wedding ceremony, the two of them walking together in Paris, and an impressionistic rendering of the Bed-In. Ed Newman and I selected four images, which when printed would give John a good indication of the versatility of the translation process from litho paper to actual lithograph.
About this time I started to work for John and Yoko in their office at Apple. The peace campaign was in full swing and John’s energy was divided among many commitments in addition to his main priorities of making music and selling peace. It took several months to just schedule a meeting for Newman to bring in the four proofed lithographs, but finally a time was arranged. Ed came into Apple and carefully laid out the prints on John and Yoko’s desk. When he saw them John was ecstatic, oohing and ahhing with childlike enthusiasm, laughing, wildly gesticulating and obviously impressed at the results. He seemed thrilled by the new dimension his drawings had taken on, master-printed on the thick luxurious Arches paper. Yoko, too, was excited for John and watched his exuberance with a kind of motherly pride.
This first stage was an obvious success as far as John was concerned, and the question now was where to go from here. I was anxious to see whether he would actually commit himself to have a portfolio published, and what he would want to put in it. Within a couple of minutes John had decided very definitely-yes, he did want his lithographs published and he had already thought up a title for the set: “Bag One.” He wanted to do more drawings of Yoko, he explained, and he thought the set would be basically of her and possibly some scenes of them together. Ed Newman brought up the business side of things and it was agreed that he would be the copublisher with John and Yoko’ s own company, Bag Productions. Newman, however, would arrange all the details and distribution since his New York associates, Consolidated Fine Arts, were one of the biggest lithograph distributors in the United States. Newman himself had a considerable reputation, having already worked with Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore and many other prominent European artists. The meeting ended with John agreeing to start work on the new series of litho drawings as soon as he had time.
But the thrill of the moment passed quickly and the lithographs took on a non-priority status. The summer of 1969 went by in a series of complex events. By September, John was drawing again but he seemed reluctant to discuss the work at all; an aura of mystery surrounded the project that reminded me of the initial secrecy of the Acorn Event. John’s attitude seemed to me to be partly a game and partly just insecurity. However, when I finally got to see the new images I understood why he had been a little hesitant: they were a series of totally intimate drawings that depicted John and Yoko in various acts of love. They were smaller and more detailed than his earlier sketches and I was impressed with their vitality, their simplicity of line, and especially the overall quality of the work. John’s draftsmanship had improved considerably since his first efforts.
I felt that the best of this erotic series could be combined with some earlier drawings of the marriage and honeymoon, in order to create an interesting and workable portfolio. John had thought along these lines himself and he was excited when Ed Newman and I started to work out ideas for packaging the lithographs and planning possible exhibitions in London, Paris, and New York.
Twelve images were selected for the final set of lithographs, half from the erotic set and half from the original drawings. John gave Ed Newman and myself carte blanche to make the choice and we picked the most vibrant images that would work together to create an interesting thematic collection. For the printing of the lithographs Newman wanted the very best quality and our first choice took us to Paris to visit the famed master-lithographers, the Crommylynck Brothers, who were Picasso’s personal printmakers. Their tiny atelier was crammed with erotic etchings from a book they were working on with Picasso. Aldo Crommylynck, the tall distinguished looking brother, was the spokesman and he agreed to proof two of John’s lithographs to show us the results they could get. The only problem was that he didn’t know when they would have time to schedule printing the whole edition, as they had such a backlog of work for Picasso – who apparently might call them at any moment to go to the south of France to work on new etchings at his house.
Before I left Paris I had a meeting with Salvador Dali, who was anxious to work with John on some incredible project. (John never seemed interested in Dali’s many attempts to get together with him.) Dali was an amazing character; it was useless trying to follow what he said as he spoke his own concoction of Spanish, French and English all mixed together-the result, as I think he intended, was totally incomprehensible. His butler served tea and at the end of my “audience” he proceeded to make an object for me to take back to John. Using anything at hand-flowers, napkins, makeup – Dali created a surreal bouquet with a strange face painted on top of It; finally he squeezed a tube of gold liquid paint to create a message for John and signed his name with an elaborate flourish. As I left his suite at the Meurice I wondered how he could still have such incredible energy – he was surely in his eighties.
When the two proofed lithographs arrived from the Crommylyncks they were beautiful, both printed in brown sepia. But the snag was the time factor-they had decided that they definitely wouldn’t be able to start on John’s sets for at least six months due to the heavy demands of Picasso. That was too long to wait and we decided to let the Curwen Studio take on the project – they had proofed John’ s original four prints and their atelier was by far the best in London.
John became more involved, in his on and off way, and came to visit the Curwen Studio to see the printing process in action. While there, he created the image for the frontispiece, a simple sketch of himself crouched on the ground holding Yoko, which he drew directly onto a zinc plate. John was fascinated by the huge Heidelberg presses and watched intently as one of his own plates was put on for proofing. He had written a long alphabet poem, beginning “A is for parrot which we can clearly see,” as an introduction to the portfolio, and he laboriously copied it out onto another zinc plate so that the poem itself would become a lithograph. This brought the total number of prints in the set up to fourteen, and the edition was to be limited to three hundred sets.The packaging of Bag One was of prime importance in bringing a cohesive feeling to the whole project. John had already agreed that a specially designed bag would be the obvious solution. So Ed Newman commissioned Ted Lapidus, the French clothes designer, to create a stylish white carrying bag complete with zips, handles and a lock. Three hundred leather bags, each to hold a complete set of lithographs, were hand-stitched by craftsmen in Italy. As a final touch to the creation, the title Bag One and John’s signature were imprinted in black letters onto the white leather.
By the time the lithographs were printed and ready to be signed John had become engrossed in his peace activities again and had very little spare time. In December 1969 he and Yoko were planning their trip to Canada to arrange the peace festival and possibly meet with Prime Minister Trudeau. As the lithographs were to be distributed mainly in America it seemed a good idea for John to sign them while he was in Canada. He had to sign every one of the three thousand prints.
The location for the signing was Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ rustic farmhouse outside Toronto. John and Yoko were hiding out there waiting for news of the meeting with Trudeau. The lithographs, which had been shipped to New York, were driven to Toronto by truck. They were held up at the border for twenty-four hours while officials impounded them as possibly obscene, until the publisher’s lawyers managed to prove that they were original Fine Arts prints. They finally arrived in the middle of a snowstorm and were stacked up in the living room. It was a surreal sight to see the piles of lithographs almost reaching the ceiling. I wondered whether John would have second thoughts at having to sign every one, but he seemed happy and joked about it.
Ed Newman flew in to supervise the signing. When the time came John set to work and with the help of Ed and myself the signing progressed at quite a speed. John methodically scrawled his name over and over again while we made a kind of human conveyor belt, lifting each lithograph and passing it down the line to its allotted space. This was accomplished with the help of endless cups of tea, many joints, and occasional entertainment from Ronnie, who played us his new album of rock ‘n’ roll songs. John enjoyed the entire two days’ work, and in between signing bouts we all rode Ski-Doos and Amphicats at high speed around the snow-covered fields.
“Bag One, the Erotic Lithographs, were now ready to be seen. The first exhibition of the set was at the London Arts Gallery, in January 1970. John could not come to the opening because he and Yoko were staying in the north of Denmark with Kyoko and Tony Cox. The lithographs were on sale for forty pounds each or five hundred and fifty pounds for the set. Inevitably, on the second day of the exhibition, the police raided the gallery with a warrant, supposedly after Scotland Yard had received complaints, and eight of the lithographs were confiscated. The summons alleged that the gallery had “exhibited to public view eight indecent prints to the annoyance of passengers, contrary to Section 54(12) of the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, and the third schedule of the Criminal Justice Act 1967.”
When the case came to court several months later [27th April 1970], a Picasso lithograph and a catalog of Picasso drawings were produced at Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court for comparison with John’s prints. Detective-Inspector Patrick Luff, of the Central Office, New Scotland Yard, said that when he went to the gallery on January 15 about forty people were viewing the prints. “I saw no display of annoyance from the younger age group, but one gentleman was clearly annoyed,” he said. Mr. St. John Harmsworth, the magistrate, asked: “Did he stamp his foot?” “Anger was registered on his face,” Inspector Luff replied. Mr. Napley, the defending lawyer, handed over a set of lithographs to the court with the comment: “I hope the officer will not mark them, because no doubt by the end of this case they will be worth more than five hundred and fifty pounds.” The case was dismissed when the magistrate decided that John’s prints were “unlikely to deprave or corrupt.”
The American opening of Bag One was a lavish affair at the Lee Nordness Gallery in New York. I flew over on John’s behalf to film the proceedings. The whole of the New York art scene and all the “beautiful people” turned out. Dali came with his pet ocelot on a leash. The lithographs were on view in a specially created environment, where spectators were asked to remove their shoes.
John began work on a new series of prints based on symbols from the Chinese I Ching book of proverbs, but he lost interest after the first two were proofed. The series was to have been a joint collaboration between him and Yoko, with John painting the geometric I Ching symbol which he had chosen (such as “communication”) and Yoko painting the Japanese equivalent, using her talent for calligraphy. They had both relied heavily on the I Ching book at various periods to help them with important decisions. The package of lithographs was going to include a “John and Yoko” edition of the book, with specially minted coins with their heads on each side. The whole affair would have been outrageously commercial, and it is probably best that they never completed it.
Excerpted from pages 164-173 of the John Lennon biography One Day at Time © 1976 Anthony Fawcett