The new “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the V&A Museum is a fascinating insight into one of one of the most contradictory figures in popular culture over the last 50 years.
For some on the left, the start and end point of David Bowie’s story is his mid-1970s flirtation with far-right iconography and symbolism: his cocaine-addled statements about believing “strongly in fascism” or calling Hitler “one of the first rock stars”. But Bowie’s story – from Ziggy Stardust to elder statesman of eclectic pop – is one that parallels many social changes in post-war Britain.
Born David Jones in 1947 at the peak of the baby boom, Bowie moved from Brixton to Bromley aged six, one of hundreds of thousands of children to move from the inner city to the burgeoning suburbs.
As he grew up Bowie became obsessed with the developing counter-culture, introduced to the Beat writers and jazz music by his elder brother Terry. This period is represented with a variety of fascinating items, from Bowie’s first acrylic saxophone to a Gilbert and George installation consisting of a pyramid of oranges. His early shifts from mod to hippy to glam rocker are documented with the kind of detail that any fan will be delighted by.
The section of the exhibition detailing Bowie’s impact on attitudes towards gender and sexuality is fascinating not just for seeing the wonderful, iconic costumes close up, but also for the fan letters and videos detailing the impact that his early 1970s appearances on Top of the Pops and his announcement of his bisexuality in Melody Maker had on their own development.
A stark black and white room displaying items from Bowie’s late 1970s years in Berlin gives the impression of a harsh period in which he recovered from cocaine addiction and met young Germans who quickly disabused him of his interest in fascism.
In the 1980s Bowie became a pop megastar. But towards the end of the decade he described himself as “a potential socialist” and was recording “indictments of Thatcher’s England” – all very well intentioned, even if the finished product left a lot to be desired.
The exhibition is a must see for any Bowie fans. While I would have liked to have seen a little more of an effort to locate Bowie’s story in its historic social context, the curators have constructed an unparalleled retrospective of his career and cultural impact.