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John Lennon’s art returns to Oak Brook, where it once was seized

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◆ DoubleTree by Hilton Chicago-Oak Brook, 1909 Spring Rd., Oak Brook

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Updated: July 6, 2012 8:54AM

When the art of John Lennon was first displayed at an art gallery in Oak Brook, in March of 1970, it got a fiery reception.

Five lithographs of the Beatle’s drawings — showing naked women lolling, masturbating and, in one case, involved in a three-way — were too much for DuPage Chief Circuit Judge Bert J. Rathje, who didn’t just have them removed from the exhibit, where they were to be viewed only by adults age 21 and older. According to an article in the Chicago Daily News, Rathje ordered the drawings, which he considered pornographic, to be confiscated and burned.

Now the sexy scribblings are rising from the ashes. The drawings are part of “The Art of John Lennon: A Return to Oak Brook,” on offer at a hotel this weekend to benefit Gilda’s Club Chicago, one of several community centers around the country established in memory of the late Gilda Radner to support people with cancer.

The exhibit’s promoter, Rudy Siegel of Legacy Fine Art & Productions, calls it “instant karma.”

Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow and a presenter of the exhibit along with Legacy, says in an interview that she doesn’t remember the Oak Brook brouhaha specifically, but was aware of other situations in which the drawings caused “a little bit of commotion,” as she puts it. That included a raid by Scotland Yard policemen on a London art gallery where the lithographs were displayed; summonses against the art gallery and its director were later dismissed.

“The drawings were a bit risque,” Ono admits with a giggle. “At that time, we were just laughing about it.”

She sighs. “The world changes so much.”

The irony of the kerfuffle is that the five pictures that offended the Oak Brook authorities are rarities among Lennon’s drawings, the great majority of which — there are about 100 on display as part of the exhibit, ranging in price from $200 to $18,000 — are funny, childlike and innocuous. In one, “Dream Power,” a couple nestles beneath a tree, dreaming; in another, “An Elephant Counting,” a pink elephant, possibly suffering from insomnia, tucks himself in for the night, counting sheep.

A few of the images send political messages, such as those in “Imagine Peace,” “Peace Brother” and “Power to the People,” in which a Statue of Liberty-like monument in a harbor features a spiky-haired male figure flashing a ’60s salute.

As Ono recalls, Lennon began as a visual artist, drawing prodigiously in elementary school; at the time he fell in love with rock ’n’ roll, he was enrolled in art school in Liverpool. In another irony, his childhood drawings were “more structured,” as Ono puts it, than his later work.

“As an adult, it’s more like the hand of a child, and that childlike quality is always there,” she says. “What he did later you can compare to Picasso’s drawings, which also have that quality. The really good ones by John retain the childlike quality, while still growing into something that communicates with people, in part because there’s such a sense of humor in the drawings. Most artists are so serious, but John always liked to have fun.”

Kevin Nance is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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