‘Portrait’ simply showcases Amy Winehouse’s formative years

Known for the big and tragic things — her voice, beehive, addictions — singer Amy Winehouse is remembered in a heartfelt, personal light in “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The exhibit covers the singer’s formative years and ascending career via photographs, installations and memorabilia. The Jewish Museum London curated the show in collaboration with Winehouse’s brother, Alex, whose recollections accompany the attractions. Some of Winehouse’s own words are printed on the walls.

The show doesn’t address the messier side of Winehouse, who died in 2011 at 27 after struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Instead, it serves as a loving tribute and a fan-friendly trip though the living room, closet and intimate orbit of the jazz and pop singer whom Tony Bennett called one of the finest-ever jazz vocalists.

A family-history section reveals Winehouse’s paternal great-great-grandparents were immigrants from Belarus. She grew up in London in a music-loving, culturally Jewish home.

Items from Winehouse’s younger years include a classroom photo (Winehouse, exuding attitude, stands out) and an essay she submitted with her drama-school application. Some of her personal belongings, such as books, records and and her first guitar, are on view.

Belying her bad-girl image, Winehouse read real literature. But she hid her Dostoevsky novels and left Jackie Collins books lying around when people were visiting, her brother notes.

Dresses and shoes, with a retro look inspired by 1960s styles and girl groups, illustrate her fashion sense.

Her musical gift, which truly makes her interest-worthy, is covered only in an entrance-area video in which she sings “Back to Black.” (For a better example of her soulful, emotive voice, see the documentary “Amy,” currently in theaters.)

The show does feature small music-related pleasures, including an old list of favorite recordings Winehouse compiled. “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” by the Mamas and the Papas, is No. 1, followed by “The Sunny Side of the Street” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” both sung by Ella Fitzgerald — hardly typical picks for a 1990s girl of about 14.

Career-related items include a Rolling Stone cover and one of Winehouse’s Grammy Awards.

In conjunction with the show, the museum presents “You Know I’m No Good,” an exhibit in which artists Rachel Harrison, Jennie Ottinger and Jason Jagel explore Winehouse’s public persona with works that contain edge that the primary show lacks. Ottinger, for example, considers the influence of African-American artists such as Nina Simone and the Ronettes on white artists such as Winehouse and examines issues of cultural appropriation.

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except to 8 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays; show runs through Nov. 1
Admission: $10 to $12
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org

Anita Katz

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