David Bowie Is
In partnership with Gucci
Sound experience by Sennheiser
23 March – 11 August 2013
The V&A has been given unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive to curate the first international retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie – one of the most pioneering and influential performers of modern times. David Bowie is explores the creative processes of Bowie as a musical innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting style and sustained reinvention across five decades.
The V&A’s Theatre and Performance curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, have selected more than 300 objects that have been brought together for the very first time. They include handwritten lyrics, original costumes, fashion, photography, film, music videos, set designs, Bowie’s own instruments and album artwork. The V&A takes an in-depth look at how David Bowie’s music and radical individualism has both influenced and been influenced by wider movements in art, design and contemporary culture. The exhibition also demonstrates how he has inspired others to challenge convention and pursue freedom of expression.
The exhibition explores the broad range of Bowie’s collaborations with artists and designers in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theatre, art and film. On display are more than 60 stage costumes including Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (1972) designed by Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto’s flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour (1973) and the Union Jack coat designed by Bowie and Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997). Also on show is photography by Brian Duffy, Terry O’Neill and Masayoshi Sukita; album sleeve artwork by Guy Peellaert and Edward Bell; cover proofs by Barnbrook for the latest album The Next Day (2013); visual excerpts from films and live performances including The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Saturday Night Live (1979); music videos such as Boys Keep Swinging (1979) and Let’s Dance (1983) and set designs created for the Diamond Dogs tour (1974).
Alongside these are more personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores and diary entries, revealing the evolution of his creative ideas.
Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, said: “David Bowie is a true icon, more relevant to popular culture now than ever. His radical innovations across music, theatre, fashion and style still resound today in design and visual culture and he continues to inspire artists and designers throughout the world. We are thrilled to be presenting the first ever exhibition drawn from the David Bowie Archive.”
Frida Giannini, Gucci Creative Director, said: “David Bowie is… one of my greatest inspirations. His individuality, originality and authenticity have been defining. Through his creative genius his influence on music, fashion, art and popular culture over decades has been immeasurable and will continue to be for decades to come.”
The exhibition offers insight into Bowie’s early years and his first steps towards musical success. Tracing the creative aspirations of the young David Robert Jones (born 1947 in Brixton, London), it shows how he was inspired by innovations in art, theatre, music, technology and youth culture in Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War. Pursuing a professional career in music and acting, he officially adopted the stage name ‘David Bowie’ in 1965 and went through a series of self-styled changes from Mod to mime artist and folk singer to R&B musician in anticipation of the shifting nature of his later career. On display are early photographs, LPs from his musical heroes such as Little Richard, and Bowie’s sketches for stage sets and costumes created for his bands The Kon-rads and The King Bees in the 1960s. This opening section concludes with a focus on Bowie’s first major hit Space Oddity (1969) and the introduction of the fictional character Major Tom, who would be revisited by Bowie in both Ashes to Ashes (1980) and Hallo Spaceboy (1995). Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A
Space Odyssey, the single was released to coincide with the first moon landing and was Bowie’s breakthrough moment, granting him critical and commercial success as an established solo artist.
The exhibition moves on to examine David Bowie’s creative processes from song writing, recording and producing to designing costumes, stage sets and album artwork. Working within both established art forms and new artistic movements, this section reveals the scope of his inspirations and cultural references from Surrealism, Brechtian theatre and avant-garde mime to West End musicals, German Expressionism and Japanese Kabuki performance. On show are some of Bowie’s own musical instruments, footage and photography of recording sessions for Outside (1995) and ‘Hours…’ (1999) as well as handwritten lyrics and word collages inspired by William Burroughs’ ‘cut up’ method of writing that have never previously been publicly displayed.
David Bowie is chronicles his innovative approach to creating albums and touring shows around fictionalised stage personas and narratives. 1972 marked the birth of his most famous creation; Ziggy Stardust, a human manifestation of an alien being. Ziggy’s daringly androgynous and otherworldly appearance has had a powerful and continuous influence on pop culture, signalling a challenge of social traditions and inspiring people to shape their own identities. On display is the original multi-coloured suit worn for the pivotal performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in July 1972, as well as outfits designed for stage characters Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke. Costumes from The 1980 Floor Show (1973), album cover sleeves for The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), alongside press cuttings and fan material, highlight Bowie’s fluid stylistic transformations and his impact on social mobility and gay liberation.
The final section celebrates David Bowie as a pioneering performer both on stage and in film, concentrating on key performances throughout his career. An immersive audio-visual space presents dramatic projections of some of Bowie’s most ambitious music videos including DJ (1979) and The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995), as well as recently uncovered footage of Bowie performing Jean Genie on Top of the Pops in 1973 and D.A. Pennebaker’s film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973). A separate screening room shows excerpts and props from Bowie’s feature films such as Labyrinth (1986) and Basquiat (1996).
In addition, this gallery traces the evolution of the lavishly produced Diamond Dogs tour (1974), the design of which was inspired by Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) and George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The tour combined exuberant choreography and a colossal set design, taking the combination of rock music and theatre to new heights. On display are previously unseen storyboards and tour footage for the proposed musical that Bowie would eventually transform into the Diamond Dogs album and touring show. An area has been dedicated to the monochrome theatricality of Bowie’s Berlin period and the creation of the stylish Thin White Duke persona identified with the Station to Station album and tour (1976). It also investigates the series of experimental and pioneering records he produced between 1977 and 1979 whilst living in Germany, known as the Berlin Trilogy.
David Bowie is concludes with a display of striking performance and fashion photographytaken by photographers including Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and John Rowlands. These professional portraits are juxtaposed with a collage of visual projections illustrating Bowie’s immense creative influence and ubiquitous presence in music, fashion and contemporary visual and virtual culture.
To complement the exhibition, the V&A has collaborated with the BBC for a feature length profile of David Bowie to be broadcast on BBC Two in May 2013. Sharing unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive, David Bowie – Five Years (working title) will focus on five critical years of his career – 1971, 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983 bringing his work up to date with his latest album.
Melbourne, Australia – 01 July – 01 August 2015
Images © Victoria & Albert Museum, London