LONDON (Reuters) - He helped create one of rock’s greatest bands, but the late Syd Barrett always considered himself a painter before a Pink Floyd founder. Speaking at an exhibition of the troubled musician’s canvases and letters, his sister Rosemary Breen said Barrett could never understand why people put his brief success with Pink Floyd ahead of his lifelong passion for art.
“His art was the real him,” Breen told Reuters in an interview, surrounded by dozens of works left behind by Barrett, who died of cancer in 2006 aged 60.
“He was firstly an artist and secondly a musician. If ever he was asked what he did, the reaction would always be ‘I’m an artist’, never ‘I’m a musician.’”
Barrett, she added, did not understand why he was so famous, despite being an original Pink Floyd member and its creative force before the English group hit the big time.
The band was formed in 1965, but Barrett left three years later due to his erratic behavior brought on by drug abuse.
After his exit, Pink Floyd produced a series of seminal records including “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall,” and sold more than 200 million albums.
Their composition “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is believed to be a tribute to Barrett.
“He never ever understood celebrity,” Breen said of her brother. “He never sought it and he didn’t want it. It was just a complete mystery to him why people wanted to see him.
“He was an artist who had got sidetracked half way through his life into playing music which he’d always enjoyed as a hobby and then came back to art. He thought he was the same as everybody else: he didn’t see anything special about himself.”
Breen said she hoped the show, “Syd Barrett: Art and Letters” at Idea Generation Gallery in east London from March 18 to April 10, would help dispel the myth that Barrett was an aggressive, deranged loner, just another rock’n’roll burnout.
While she believed that Barrett was brain damaged due to heavy LSD use in the 1960s and 1970s, and that he lived in virtual seclusion in his final years, Breen said he was “kind” and “loveable” and found fulfillment through his art.
“I would like people to come and see it and laugh at it and enjoy it and see the fun that he was,” she said.
“In the last years of his life he was very reclusive and he could be quite sharp with people wanting to talk to him — it’s only because he couldn’t cope with talking and he couldn’t cope with society really.
“He wasn’t unhappy. He just wanted to be very quiet and paint and live a contented life, which I think he did.”
Breen was close to her brother as a child, and they renewed their relationship when Barrett returned to Cambridge after giving up on music and stardom. He spent much of the last 30 years of his life living alone gardening and painting.
According to Breen, Barrett would throw away virtually everything he painted, although his art was as necessary to him as “food and drink.”
“It was a real need ... When he was born he screamed and as soon as he was about 18 months old and could hold a pen or pencil, he calmed down and that was the way all his life.
“He stopped painting after Pink Floyd for some years and that was a bad time. As soon as he picked it up again in the 1980s and 1990s, he was a more contented person.
“I don’t know whether happy is the word, but he had such an eccentric head that ... contentment was all one could hope for.”
Will Shutes, co-author of a new picture book dedicated to Barrett and his art, has tracked down 101 known works, although many of them survive only in photographs.
Dozens are on display at Idea Generation, ranging from sketches of a boy done as a teenager to a thickly textured oil painting in red and brown and a small, crude mosaic.
Shutes owns one of the works on show which his family bought for 6,000 pounds ($10,000) at an auction of Barrett’s possessions after he died.
Also highly coveted are a series of letters to old girlfriends Libby and Jenny dated 1962-1965, which are affectionate, candid and witty and feature cartoons and doodles.
“This morning I engraved your name on my leg, as I went crazy for you, a mad craving lust which did me no good as I tripped over a guy and fell flat on my face,” he wrote to Libby.
In a letter to Jenny, he describes an early recording session with his bandmates who went on to form Pink Floyd.
“The tracks sound terrific so far, especially King Bee.”
One omission Breen was thankful for was paintings Barrett attempted when in the depths of depression.
“We haven’t got anything here from the period when he was at his lowest,” she said. “He did paint one or two but they have been destroyed. They would be just big black pictures, and luckily there’s none here because they are very upsetting.”
Editing by Steve Addison