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David Bowie is... exhibition at V&A is a ringing endorsement of pure stardom

But the scribbled song lyrics, paperback books and influences on offer alongside the incredible clothes show the Thin White Duke as an assimilator of culture rather than an original, says John Walsh

The first sight that greets you at the V&A is a mannequin bearing Kansai Yamamoto’s fabulous monochrome PVC bodysuit -- the one that spreads out sideways below the waist and transforms the wearer into a massive poire brulee. David Bowie wore it on the Aladdin Sane tour in summer 1973. I was there. I recall how he strode onto the stage of the New Theatre Oxford, stood acknowledging the applause, and just…posed, as though saying to the fans, “What do you think of the stuff I picked up in Japan then?”

It was a curiously intimate moment, like a friend showing off a daring new outfit to potentially doubtful pals. And it confirmed that Bowie’s role as an artist was about more than the music. It was about drawing his fans’ attention to exciting things the world had to offer - art, fashion, theatricality, different ways of being, different forms of beauty.

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That’s what the V&A show tries to do. Its curators, Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, have raided the David Bowie archive and selected 300 objects to evoke his hyper-stylish weirdness. Clothes play a major part, as you’d expect in a performer who brought 14 changes of stage costume while touring Ziggy Stardust in 1972. But they also feature musical instruments (including the banjo he played onstage in Baal, and an ancient synthesiser from the Berlin days,) record designs, first-draft lyrics handwritten in scratchy Rotring pen with lots of crossings-out, set designs and film storyboards. There are pop videos, film clips and a truly dreadful, sub-Marceau mime about a performer who can’t get his mask off…  There are letters from the famous (one a slyly seductive postcard from Christopher Isherwood) and fans’ scrapbooks, a contacts sheet of Brian Duffy’s flash-of-lightning portrait, and an application form asking if he’d like to update his Spotlight entry.

The first room evokes the music world of 1965 when, after joining and leaving an ad agency, he decided instead to be a professional musician. An impressive installation offers early photos of his tidy Mod look, then his scruffy folkie look, footage of his heroes Little Richard, Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, stills of his early bands, the Kon-Rads and the King Bees, snatches of early songs, when he was trying to sound like Anthony Newley – before “Space Oddity,” released just before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission, changed everything.

On the audio guide you can hear Bowie complaining that there are “too many suicides” in his mother’s family and speaking as the proud founder the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men; he complains that “People tend to make remarks to you, like ‘Hello darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’” (They did? Well I never.) You can hear Bowie striving to appreciate jazz because he thinks it would be cool, and admitting he carries paperbacks that are too highbrow for him, but whose titles peep out his jacket to impress fellow travellers on the train.

These little revelations show him as an assimilator of culture rather than an original – an accusation long levelled at the Thin White Duke. And after the “Starman” exhibit (showing his life-changing TV debut on Top of the Pops in 1972, wearing Freddie Buretti’s quilted jumpsuit and Clockwork Orange wrestling boots – a look Bowie described as “Ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics,”) a huge room itemises his other influences. They’re basically everyone in art and cultural history: flickering images on boxes hanging from the ceiling include Chaplin, Wilde, Dietrich, Aleister Crowley, Warhol, Edie Sidgewick, JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, you name it. “Bowie’s energy in seeking out new ideas, and his skill in filtering them to find exactly what he needs, is a major contributor to his success” reads the naïve and hagiographic programme note, which succeeds in presenting the great man as a restless rummager through other people’s stuff.  A remarkable invention of Bowie’s called the Verbasizer, which randomly generates words for songs, is shown to be a derivative of William Burroughs’s and Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” prose technique. 

The music makes up for it, of course: as you wander from room to room, the strains of “Heroes” or “Changes”, “Ashes to Ashes” or “ Life on Mars?” or “The Man Who Sold the World” fill your ears, ageless and un-dated. Even a video of his below-par song “Boys Keep Swinging” is lifted by his elegant moves at the microphone and the presence of three foxy backing singers, all played by himself. 

The curators have chosen, rather perversely, to present Bowie’s career non-chronologically. We’re pitched into a continuum that mixes different time-frames: Buretti’s wonderful ice-turquoise suit is displayed alongside a video of Bowie wearing it while singing “ Life on Mars?” in 1971 –and next door is the Pierrot outfit, designed by Natasha Korniloff, that he wore in the “Ashes to Ashes” video in 1980. The clothes are ravishing, whether they’re space-age jumpsuits or slender two-piece suits with bum-freezer jackets, and you wish the designs by Buretti, Korniloff and Yamamoto had been given mini-galleries to themselves. And though Bowie’s Berlin period – which produced his trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger – warrants a room to itself, little of his recording work after Let’s Dance (1982) gets a look-in, until The Next Day, released last week.

The final room, however, sweeps away your objections. It’s a simple, ringing endorsement of pure stardom:  Bowie’s amazingly beautiful face appears in massive close-up on a floor-to-ceiling screen, moments from his finest performances are shown on a video-wall that also displays his most covetable stage outfits, and there’s a final display of the suits that clothed so many vivid personas over the decades. I looked up at the 20-feet-high image of Bowie in his blue cricket flannels and thought of Julius Caesar: “Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus; and we petty men/ Walk under his huge legs and peep about…” The V&A exhibition is chaotic and overly respectful, but when it comes to conveying his epic stature, they’v e done the former David Jones of Brixton very proud.     

David Bowie is…, V&A, 23 March - 11 August