Joy Division and New Order are revered for their visual legacy as much as their musical one, with much of their seminal imagery still finding its way into contemporary culture. Manchester International Festival’s fifth collaboration with Manchester Art Gallery celebrates the two iconic Mancunian bands 40 years after their first performances based upon the art behind their albums and the span of time through which their relevance stretches. Most of this is down to Peter Saville, Factory Records Director and in-house designer, largely responsible for the iconography behind it all. The exhibition first introduces you to the work through his cover art in a chronological catalogue of 8 of their albums, graphic design meant to tell a story of inclusiveness – a moral the band members lived for. Saville created a visual representation so recognisable that only half of the sleeves on show include an artist or album name.
As you’re drawn a little further into True Faith, you see ‘Ornamental Despair’ (1980) by Julian Schnabel, the first known cultural response to the bands. A painted square frame on velvet vacated by the slumped and fading ghostly figure crawling away from the spotlight. An ode to lead singer Ian Curtis’ struggles with fame and depression; and early indication of how important Joy Division would become regionally and internationally on a mass-cultural scale. The piece was inspired by the Closer album sleeve, itself an old photograph of a tomb in Genoa, an image Joy Division decided to keep despite the album release date falling just two months after Curtis’ untimely death.
Although on the surface the exhibition is a celebration of two of Manchester’s most important bands, some of the more traditionally contemporary works pay homage to Curtis’ tragic suicide by hanging, such as ‘Ian Curtis’ (2001) by Dexter Dalwood, a dark oil on canvas painting of a lone hanging lightbulb in a shadowed room, depicting a bright light surrounded by a dark environment with nothing but a music speaker for company.
Taking a more light-hearted look at the past however is ‘Understandable Feelings’ (2015) by Matthew Brannon. A portrait letterpress and silkscreen on paper with a carefully positioned bottle of Johnson’s No More Tears baby shampoo and the 12 inch vinyl sleeve of the famously emotive song, Love Will Tear Us Apart. Underneath reads, ‘Hey now. Hush. Everything is going to be okay. You’re a grown man.’ Brannon simplifies the relationship between song and listener, perhaps even appropriating the lyrics and their role today.
The final room of the exhibition is mostly poster art covering the past 40 years, focussing on New Order after their transition from Joy Division. The band transformed from post-punk into alternative dance and electropop. Their visual art naturally evolved alongside the music, at the same time as 1980s Manchester. By the end of the decade we had the Second Summer of Love and Haçienda club. The chronological curation subtly represents this growth and change, with New Order undoubtedly playing their part in the cultural coming of age of the city during that era. The sometimes colourful, attention-grabbing introduction to New Order’s cover sleeves and posters are a contradiction to Joy Division’s earlier moody covers.
True Faith also incorporates stand-out film and ephemera, consisting of Ian Curtis’ original hand-written lyrics and band manager Rob Gretton’s 1979 notebook, reading, ‘I would rather adopt a different role with regards to everything – try to approach everything from a different viewpoint – not have everything dictated by money.’ This is perhaps the all-important blueprint for what would precede the cultural and visual legacy of the bands. The lasting impression from curator Matthew Higgs, film-maker Jon Savage, and archivist Johan Kugelberg’s carefully constructed exhibition is one of remembrance, idolisation and respect. Love may tear us apart – but art will bring us back together.
True Faith, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, 30 June – 3 September 2017.
Chris Connolly is a writer based in Manchester.