Two-tone Tony: Tony Curtis paints not for himself, not even for Hollywood, but for 'mankind'. Dalya Alberge finds more than mere celebrity art

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The Independent Culture
Even Matisse didn't have 10,000 people writing to him every week asking for a lock of his hair: Tony Curtis, the Hollywood star making his British debut as an artist, had just that, at the peak of his success.

Curtis, today a boyish 68, has been visiting London for an exhibition of his paintings - still- lifes and landscapes inspired by Matisse and 3-D constructions influenced by Joseph Cornell, the American artist. In a show timed to coincide with the publication of his autobiography, his works have been selling at the Catto Gallery in North London for up to pounds 10,000 each: already, his autobiography is number one in the bestsellers' list and the gallery has sold all his works.

Not surprising for a man who has been a Hollywood legend in his own lifetime. Curtis, idolised in the 1950s and 1960s, and who gave his name to a haircut, has made more than 100 films - among them, Spartacus with Kirk Douglas, Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe, and The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier. Although as an artist he has had a dozen exhibitions, he reacts angrily to those who picture him only as 'a celebrity artist'.

Art, he insists, is as important to him as his acting: even during the 1970s and 1980s, when drugs and drink dragged him down, he carried on painting. He claims that art is his alter ego. Certainly, Tony Curtis the film star could not be more different from Tony Curtis the artist: Curtis, the glamorous star made in Hollywood, can never forget his beginnings as Bernie Schwartz, a street kid born of the Bronx, from Hungarian-Jewish parents.

He has, he says, always felt that there were two people inside him. He talks of how these two sides to his character reflect an inner conflict - between a sense of pride and joy, and feeling that 'I don't deserve it'.

His familiar voice makes some of his comments sound like a script straight out of a Hollywood romance: the big screen ideals of Spartacus come to mind as he talks of painting not for himself, or any individual - but for 'mankind'. Curtis is, however, much more modest and thoughtful than a few of his lines suggest.

His paintings follow Matisse both in composition and colour, awash with Mediterranean sea blue. He intends to produce a series of graphics of his leading ladies, from Monroe to Mae West, portraying them as he understood they would have liked to have looked - Mae West, for example, more girlish. So far, any autobiographical element in his art has been strongest in his 3-D assemblages of personal objects. In one work, French Impressionists, torn pages of French text form a background to children's toys - dice, jacks and marbles. Curtis explains, 'I had a brother who was killed, hit by a truck . . . Those marbles, that's what we played . . . He was nine, I was 12 and we used to shoot marbles. So marbles become a symbol to me . . . That marble looks as good now as then: the kid that owned it is . . . dead.'

Despite his insistence that art is more than just a sideline, there is an advantage to being a celebrity artist. Hotels never complain when he paints in the room; in the Bel Air, he used to leave Jackson Pollock splashings on the wall, which he cheekily once signed. They would quietly clean up the room, and await his next arrival. 'Had I been Van Gogh, they'd have kicked me out and charged me for everything.'

Catto Gallery, 100 Heath St, London, NW3 (071-435 6660) to 10 April. His autobiography is published by Heinemann, pounds 16.99

(Photographs omitted)