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Features / Exhibition

“It’s pop culture that has educated this country”: Peter Saville on Manchester’s True Faith exhibition

Words:

Lucy Bourton

“The influence of this is in everything,” says Peter Saville gesturing at his sleeve designs for Factory Records, alongside a wealth of work inspired by Joy Division and New Order. “It transcends music completely. It’s in every gallery you go to, it’s in every fashion collection, the influence of this,” he says again looking around him, “has spread through everything.”

Peter Saville’s record collection is one of the immediate pieces on display at True Faith, a large retrospective of creative works inspired by the audible and visual language of Joy Division and New Order. The designer’s interpretation of these bands, the first to transform their sound to sleeve has become Manchester’s design heritage, arguably curating the world’s view of the city ever since. “Obviously I’ve known all this since the beginning, for the past 35 years. It’s not new to me, there is nothing here that is a revelation to me,” he says on the exhibition’s works. “The difference is the establishment’s conformation of it, the endorsement of it by having the show. That’s the difference.”

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Closer by Joy Division, Factory album 1980. Art direction by Peter Saville, photography by Bernard Pierre Wolff, Designed by Peter Saville and Martyn Atkins

True Faith’s curation, completed by Matthew Higgs, Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, is a balanced example of nostalgia. The exhibition doesn’t make you wish to travel back to 1979, instead showing its effect on all elements of culture today from the works of Mark Leckey and Kevin Cummins, to Barbara Kruger and Raf Simons. The exhibition is additionally Maria Balshaw’s last at Manchester Art Gallery before she becomes director of the Tate. “Blue Monday was the first 12-inch record I bought, aged 13,” she writes in the True Faith foreword, “I could not be more proud that this exhibition is my final one in Manchester.”

Walking around the exhibition, viewers are hit with an inspirational force: Joy Division, New Order, Factory, The Hacienda. Above all the works, figuratively and literally, hangs a large photograph of Tony Wilson, a subtle and thoughtful thank you to a man who made it all possible. As a retrospective True Faith is a validation of not only the contributing artist’s work, but of music as an influential medium itself. “There is a ghetto around pop culture with music there at the heart of it,” Peter tells It’s Nice That. “It suffers from a lack of intelligent discourse around it, so very very rarely is there any kind of creative critique at a sufficiently high level for pop culture, which is ironic seeing that actually, it’s the single most powerful culture, particularly in the UK, for the entire post war period.”

The designer’s passion and pride for the works he and others completed during the Factory Records era is clear. “Pretty much everything, every change that has happened in this country has been channeled first through pop,” he explains. “Whether it be political, civil liberties, gender issues, fashion, design, art, it all channels through pop culture. It’s pop culture that has educated this country for the past 50 years and introduced things to people, because that’s how it works.”

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Ceremony by New Order, Factory single, 1980. Art direction by Peter Saville, design by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens

One piece of Peter’s work, the New Order Power, Corruption and Lies sleeve, displays the designer’s work and thought process at full circle. One of the most obvious representations of artistic appropriation Peter is known for, its inspiration developed from a postcard he picked up of Henri Fantin-Latour’s A Basket of Roses, a painting in the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Peter explained that Factory were initially refused use of the painting: “Tony Wilson had to phone the gallery director for permission to use the image. In the course of the conversation he said, ‘Sir, whose painting is it?’ To which the answer was, ‘It belongs to the people of Britain.’ Tony’s response was, ‘I believe the people want it.’ And the director said, ‘If you put it like that, Mr Wilson, I’m sure we can make an exception in this case’.”

In this instance, a painting from 1890 influenced a record sleeve design in 1983, which was then used in Raf Simons’ AW03 fashion collection, a true representation of pop culture’s influence. The original painting, the postcard that Peter picked up, and the Power, Corruption and Lies cover that followed are each on display at True Faith.

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Blue Monday by New Order, Factory single, 1983. Art direction by Peter Saville, design by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens

A further example of Joy Division’s influence on art, but also community outside the remit of music, is a performance piece by Jeremy Deller on display at the exhibition. In 2009, Jeremy organised Procession which saw a steel drum cover band play Joy Division’s Transmission, on the back of a truck. Watching a film of the performance, recorded by Nicolas Abrahams (who runs alongside the truck as it moves, uploaded to YouTube as “best joy division cover version in the world!”) is a joyous thing to experience in the realm of an art gallery. Even though it is not one of Peter’s own works, Jeremy’s evident social aptitude, a performance giving music, art and design back to the people is palpable.

Peter’s enormous influence across graphic design is known globally and, chatting with the designer, his awareness of this is evident. “Interestingly with this work, Joy Division in particular are the canon of pop now. It carries on through subsequent generations, in the same way that when I was a teenager I learned that I had to have a Velvet Underground record even though it was a few years before me,” he explains. “In that same way a 15-year-old now, a cool 15-year-old, knows they need a Joy Division record, it carries on.”

I ask the designer if, at a younger age, he could foresee any of his career, to be the art director behind such an influential group of records. He reflects: “I knew exactly what this was about, this was curation, this was wishful thinking. You never know how it is going to reverberate and in some ways that has been surprising and disappointing… But I always knew what I was doing.”

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True Faith by New Order, 1987. Art Direction by Peter Saville

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Fine Time by New Order, Factory single, 1988. Art direction by Peter Saville, dichromate image Trevor Key and Peter Saville, design by Peter Saville Associates

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Regret by New Order, Factory Single, 1993. Art direction by Peter Saville, imagery sourced from photo libraries, design by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens at Pentagram