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Celebrating punk’s provocative visual style

‘A True and Dirty Tale’ focuses on fashion, graphic art of era
/ Source: The Associated Press

To punks, image was as important as music. The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious was a poor bassist but an excellent icon: He lived fast, died young and left a cool-looking corpse.

A new London exhibition devoted to the visual imagery of the Sex Pistols bristles with the aggressive, improvised spirit of the movement. What it reveals more than anything else is that movement’s influence on marketing.

The ransom-note lettering, provocative nudity and anarchic slogans pioneered by the Pistols during their brief 1970s career have all suffused modern advertising. It’s hard to remember how shocking they once seemed.

“We live in a culture where we’ve assimilated this. We understand it now,” said Paul Stolper, an art dealer who co-curated the show with editor Andrew Wilson, drawing on their extensive collection of Pistols’ posters, clothing and other memorabilia.

He gestured at one of the band’s most arresting posters — a picture of a sullen, naked boy smoking a cigarette. “That was shocking,” he said. So were images of naked cowboys, bare breasts, swastikas and inverted crucifixes, all used to create the band’s image as musical and social rebels.

Early posters proclaimed the Pistols “London’s most notorious band.” It was a deliberately self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The first phase of punk styling ... was probably the last time in social history that clothing would provoke hatred,” noted art journalist Michael Bracewell in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

Rapid assimilation for punkNonetheless, punk quickly entered the mainstream. “As early as 1976 punk had been picked up on the radar of trend analysis,” Bracewell wrote. “By 1977 it would have been picked up on by Womans Own magazine.”

Running at The Hospital — a gallery, recording studio and members’ club co-owned by former Eurythmics’ guitarist Dave Stewart — “Punk: A True and Dirty Tale” focuses on the work of designer Vivienne Westwood and graphic artist Jamie Reid. Westwood — co-owner of Sex, the King’s Road shop where London’s early punks gathered — outfitted the band in custom-made garments accessorized with rips, straps, clips and safety pins.

The influence of those early garments — tartan trousers, string jumpers, muslin shirts — can be seen in Westwood’s later work for catwalks and boutiques around the world.

The fashions are arranged around the walls of the airy, whitewashed gallery alongside Reid’s posters, leaflets and press releases. There are tartan bondage trousers, shirts mixing pornographic images and revolutionary slogans and a dyed muslin shirt stenciled with the legend “only anarchists are pretty.”

Reid designed distinctive collage-style posters and album covers, including the famous image of Queen Elizabeth II, eyes covered and a safety pin through her lip, that advertised the 1977 single “God Save the Queen.”

Punk, says Stolper, was more than a musical movement. It was “a phenomenal convergence of music, fashion and design.”

'We hate everything'
The third presence in the show is Malcolm McLaren, the svengali-like manager who forged the Pistols into an intense, short-lived media phenomenon. The exhibition features his manifesto for the band — “The Sex Pistols are like some contagious disease: untouchable!” — and their first press release, which proclaimed: “We hate everything.”

Westwood, Reid and McLaren met at art school in the late 1960s, and drew on the radical theories of situationism and the experiments of Andy Warhol in planning their attack on the cultural mainstream.

For a legendarily rebellious band that went through three record labels in a two-year career, the show reveals a canny sense of marketing. There are silk Pistols’ patches, stickers — even handkerchiefs — as well as posters.

“People like Malcolm McLaren had a distinct program for using imagery to sell the band,” Stolper said. “In retrospect, it looks predetermined, and it was. But it’s not the usual way you start a band. McLaren was more interested in the glorious failure of it all.”

The exhibition also features more usual music memorabilia, including Johnny Rotten’s handwritten lyric sheets and a poster taken from the room in New York’s Chelsea Hotel where Vicious allegedly stabbed to death his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978. The poster is stained with what looks like blood. Vicious died of a heroin overdose the next year.

Stolper, 39, concedes that he and Wilson are “not massive fans” of the Pistols’ music, but were drawn to their visual vocabulary.

“It turned graphic design upside down,” he said. “You couldn’t have had any of the style magazines that started in about 1980 without punk. It allowed you to get away with anything — the whole do-it-yourself ethic.”

“Punk: A True and Dirty Tale” runs at The Hospital Gallery, 24 Endell St., London, until Jan. 23. There are no plans for the show to travel elsewhere.