Meaning of Radiohead's Kid A "Bear" Art: Inspired by Charles Burchfield?

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 12 July 2016

What is the story and the meaning behind the mysterious Radiohead bear logo? Ever since it appeared on some supplemental artwork associated with Radiohead's fourth album Kid A (2000), the Radiohead bear has almost evolved into a symbol of the band itself, reproduced on W.A.S.T.E. merchandise including T-shirts, posters and even bumper stickers. While Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood and lead singer Thom Yorke are credited as the creators of the bear logo, they may have been originally inspired by the early sketches and drawings of American watercolor painter Charles Burchfield.

Meaning of Radiohead's Kid A
"Bear" logo from Radiohead's Kid A album, circa 2000

A long-running fan favorite, the Radiohead bear logo never appeared on any official album artwork, but showed up in various incarnations via supplemental promotional videos and graphics on the Radiohead.com website throughout the early 2000s. The bear imagery was even evoked through the title of the instrumental track “Hunting Bears” on Kid A’s follow-up album, Amnesiac (2001). Though the Radiohead bear comes in many forms and variations, it always features the same carnivorous grin, perched ears, and large unblinking eyes.

Radiohead Bear Logo Artwork
Still from Radiohead's Kid A video blip; "Excited Bears" - supplemental art from Kid A

GMO Bear: Genetically Modified Radiohead Bear?

Radiohead's bear head logo has been known by several names over the years — "Modified Bear," "Despot Bear," "Hunting Bear," and "Blinky Bear," amongst others. While the term "Modified Bear" seems to originate from a cartoon strip about genetically modified bears published on Radiohead.com around the time of the Kid A release, the Radiohead bear may have also been "modified" and adapted from the work of another artist, thus making it truly a GMO bear. For the record, this wouldn't be the first time Radiohead has secretly referenced another artist.

So what are the origins and history of the Radiohead bear illustration? Radiohead's logo remarkably resembles a charcoal, crayon and pencil sketch titled "Tree Like a Grinning Skull and the First Spring-Beauty" by nature artist Charles Burchfield circa 1919. Though the title ironically refers to the new life and colorful growth associated with springtime, Burchfield's black and white sketch seems almost like a memento mori of death. In the sketch, a cavernous, ghostly white tree balloons up before a dark, stormy sky. As in his house paintings, Burchfield gives the tree an uncanny life with anthropomorphic features, with holes in the canopy resembling a "grinning" skull face.

Charles Burchfield- Tree Like a Grinning Skull - Radiohead bear?
Charles Burchfield's "Tree Like a Grinning Skull and the First Spring-Beauty" sketch, circa 1919

Similarities Between the Radiohead Bear & The Burchfield Tree

In comparison, the Radiohead bear almost looks like it could have been drawn by Charles Burchfield himself. The face of the Radiohead bear is strikingly similar to Burchfield's tree, sharing the same reptilian eyes, perched ears, and pointy teeth. Though the Radiohead bear was later simplified into an easily reproduced logo format, the stippling effects in earlier line drawings of the creature bear even more of a resemblance to Burchfield's sketch (above).

Radiohead Bear Meaning

"Tree Like a Grinning Skull" is reminiscent of much of Burchfield's art work during this time period. In both his house paintings and nature art, Burchfield tends to imbue an otherworldly and often unsettling energy into landscapes that usually feel safe and in some cases even boring. Burchfield's artistic ability to transform the mundane into something uncanny and even threatening very well may have inspired Stanley Donwood and Thom Yorke, who are also known to draw out the fiercer, more primitive aspects of modern day society in their work with Radiohead.

What do you think? Was the Radiohead bear inspired by Charles Burchfield?

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