David Bowie: sound and vision

It could have been yet another music memorobilia show, but the V&A exhibition elevates David Bowie into museum material


David Bowie is enjoying a moment. His first album for a decade, The Next Day , was released to hosannas from fans, raves from critics and strong sales. It’s a triple whammy that shows music careers don’t have to be built on ubiquity, self-promotion and greatest-hits tours.

Bowie’s lengthy absence from the limelight did nothing to lessen his appeal. His legacy has been amplified and augmented because he wasn’t around, shopping new albums and tours, to distract from it. Bowie himself may be constantly seeking to go forwards, not backwards, with his work, but that doesn’t mean others can’t reassess and recalibrate his work so far.

Bowie is everywhere in London at the moment, particularly in the form of one image. Although he’s present in posters featuring Jonathan Barnbrook’s striking artwork for the new album, which recasts the Heroes sleeve from 1973, another image dominates the landscape, following you from street to Tube and back. That’s Brian Duffy and Celia Philo’s photograph from the Aladdin Sane album-cover sessions, the one of Bowie sporting a red and blue lightning bolt over his right eye.

This is the main image used to promote the David Bowie is exhibition at the city’s Victoria & Albert Museum, though the curators had many images to choose from when selecting a visual exclamation mark. There’s John Robert Rowlands’ stark monochrome study of the singer as the Thin White Duke, for example, or Guy Peellaert’s portrayal of him as half-man, half-canine for the Diamond Dogs sleeve, or even Bowie the fashionista clad in Kansai Yamamoto’s striped cobweb bodysuit on the Aladdin Sane tour.

These images and hundreds more photographs and artifacts from the archives form the skin and bones of the exhibition, which sets out to trace Bowie’s influence on contemporary culture. Just as Bowie borrowed from fashion, design, theatre, art and dance to reinvent himself, his landmark albums, chameleon turns and stylistic twists have had an impact on other cultural worlds.

Putting pop in a gallery space like this was always going to be an interesting exercise, especially in terms of marrying context and content. The writer and commentator Paul Morley was an artistic adviser to the exhibition and the originator of its title. He spoke at a Banter event in London last weekend about the danger of an event such as this resembling a Hard Rock Café or Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, with memorabilia, costumes and old clothes to the fore. The trick was to refresh what such an exhibition is all about and to show how and why an artist such as Bowie belongs in such a setting.

Yet Bowie is first and foremost a pop singer and performer, and the exhibition never loses sight of the fact that it was music, not art or design, that brought Bowie into the spotlight. Music gave him the elbow room to pivot from the suburban teenager David Jones, seen in the early stages of the exhibition campaigning for “the prevention of cruelty against long-haired men” and dreaming of escaping postwar ennui in Beckenham, in Kent, to the global pop star channelling Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust. Yes, there was the Laughing Gnome – a reference to that 1967 novelty hit is tucked away in a corner – but Space Oddity in 1969 was the breakthrough hit and the beginning of Bowiemania.

Bowie’s success came when he put on the masks of various alter egos, such as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack and Nathan Adler. As his career flourished, these characters became more lavish, colourful and intricate, and he saw the value of doing what his peers weren’t even thinking about.

An exhibit devoted to his performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 shows what an extraordinary figure Bowie was at that time. Others may have also worn Day-Glo clobber and experimented with glitter, but Bowie had a strong allure of the other. When he gestured at the camera while singing “you”, thousands were prepared to believe he was singling them out.

The exhibition presents clues about who, and where, Bowie was taking his cues from when it came to reinventions, artistic codes and visual ideas. For example, the record-label executive Calvin Mark Lee is credited as the person who tipped Bowie to Victor Vasarely’s Folklore Planetaire as a backdrop for the Space Oddity sleeve. Lee is also mentioned as the one who inspired Bowie’s “third eye” make-up for Aladdin Sane .

Books such as The Outsider and 19 84 are suspended from the ceiling, and posters from Metropolis and other films, and photographs of Oscar Wilde, hang on the walls to represent Bowie’s cultural stimuli.

We also get the routes he took when experimenting. There are nooks and crannies for his forays into Berlin, the most creative period of his musical career, and Broadway,where he starred in The Elephant Man , screenings of some of his scenes in The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Prestige and costumes from the singer’s wardrobe, which are laid out like relics of ghosts.

The final room brings us squarely back to Bowie the pop performer, featuring concert clips. On a series of huge screens, Bowie reminds us what a magnetic onstage presence he was.

It’s probably unlikely he will tour like that again, and that leaves a lingering sense of loss. Certainly, very few of today’s pop A-listers could compete with him for onstage verve and charisma.

In keeping with his decade-long reticence, Bowie hasn’t expressed any views about the exhibition, but his decision to allow access to his personal archive demonstrates a degree of acquiescence with the ideas and motives behind it.

Although Bowie may prefer not to look back at what he has achieved, he obviously sees the value of a retrospective of this ilk, especially in a setting such as the V&A.

And, as befits a master of timing when it comes to his own work, it’s worth noting that this blockbuster exhibition, already the V&A’s most successful, coincides with the release of the new album.

Some acts, it turns out, don’t need to go on a world tour to make a splash.

David Bowie Is
continues at
the Victoria
and Albert
Museum until August 11th; vam.ac.uk