True Faith: How Joy Division and New Order influenced the art world

A new exhibition taking place at Manchester Art Gallery as part of this year’s Manchester International Festival examines the cultural and design history of two of the city’s most iconic bands, as well as how they continue to inspire contemporary artists. We talk to its curators, Matthew Higgs and Jon Savage

It’s always slightly shocking to realise just how long ago it was that Joy Division first arrived on the Manchester scene. The city in 1978 was a very different place to now, but the band – and of course New Order, Factory, The Haçienda and everything else that followed – are so intrinsic to Manchester’s identity that it all feels like it took place much more recently.

This is also due to the two bands’ enduring influence on wider culture and contemporary art. As True Faith, a new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery shows, both Joy Division and New Order have proved a unique draw for artists and fashion designers both in the UK and internationally, all of which are attracted to the unique ‘mood’ they created. Included in the show are works by Jeremy Deller, Mark Leckey, Glenn Brown, Slater Bradley, Liam Gillick (who has also created a live ‘experience’ for a series of gigs by New Order forming part of MIF) and more.

Installation views of ‘True Faith’ at Manchester Art Gallery. © Manchester City Galleries. Photography: Michael Pollard

“I think what’s interesting about Joy Division and New Order is they are a total artwork,” says author and filmmaker Jon Savage, who has curated the MAG show with Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns gallery in New York, alongside archivist Johan Kugelberg. “The design goes hand in hand with the music, and with the way that the group present themselves, into being something more than just a bunch of people playing music.

“If you’d told me in 1979 that people would still be talking this way about Joy Division, I wouldn’t be surprised but I’d have been pleased,” he continues. “Joy Division, in particular, gave pretty much the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.”

From the beginning, New Order and Joy Division collaborated with artists and designers to help shape the bands’ image, and much of this work, which is also included at the MAG show, is now iconic. From Peter Saville’s sleeve designs to Kevin Cummins’ photography to Anton Corbjin’s video for Atmosphere, their visual output was unusual and compelling throughout.

“They established a degree of autonomy, independence, and self-determination for themselves that was – and remains – very unusual in the music industry,” says Matthew Higgs. “Through their collaborations with artists, designers and filmmakers such as Peter Saville, Jonathan Demme, Kathryn Bigelow, Lawrence Weiner and John Baldessari among others, they also helped change the way music ‘looks’ through the innovative work these artists made in response to the band’s music.”

“I think design was fantastically important,” continues Savage, “because basically the group did not really do interviews. This was a fairly deliberate policy because I think the manager at the time, Rob Gretton, realised that was not the way to promote them and that they were much better avoiding a lot of music press interviews.

“They didn’t particularly enjoy explaining themselves, they didn’t particularly see why they should explain themselves. So the design really took up the slack, the design therefore was fantastically important, obviously in particular Peter Saville’s designs, not only for the posters but obviously for the record covers, which were very recognisable and very, very different. So the design was more important to proclaim that this was something different, that’s coming from a different place and to avoid too much explanation.”

New Order, True Faith cover, Design: Peter Saville
New Order, Republic cover, 1993. Art direction: Peter Saville; Imagery sourced from photo libraries. Design: Peter Saville and Brett Wickens, Pentagram

The show at MAG also includes ephemera from the band itself, including Ian Curtis’s handwritten lyrics for Love Will Tear Us Apart. Curtis’ life and death, particularly the intense, melancholic image he projected with the band, has also of course proved an attractive theme for artists. Among the artworks on show is a painting by Julian Schnabel from 1980 titled Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis), which was influenced by Saville’s Closer sleeve design and became a kind of homage to the singer soon after his death.

“Peter Saville has described Manchester as ‘the original modern city’ and I think in both Joy Division and New Order you find a collision between modernity and melancholia (a condition that permeates the band’s music, and arguably the ‘North’ itself),” says Higgs. “This tension – between the past, present, and future – that is central to the band’s music, is one that clearly resonates with artists as different as Martin Boyce (whose installation in the exhibition is inspired by New Order’s lyrics) and the designer Raf Simons whose 2003 collection was made in collaboration with Peter Saville.”

Glenn Brown, Dark Angel (for Ian Curtis) after Chris Foss (2002); © Glenn Brown and Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler
Julian Schnabel, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis)(1980); Courtesy Bischofberger Collection, Männedorf, Zurich Switzerland

This year marks 40 years since Joy Division’s first performance in 1977 (as the band Warsaw). In the intervening years, the band and New Order have – along with other music that has come from the city – come to define Manchester to a certain extent. At a time when ‘heritage rock’ has become so dominant, there is a risk that in other bands this might become repressive, locking the city in a certain time and place. But in the ongoing experimental and shape-shifting nature of New Order (which is also in evidence in a series of gigs taking place as part of MIF, where they perform with a 12-strong synthesiser orchestra), it continues to feel alive, and interesting.

“For the Manchester International Festival New Order are revisiting and reinterpreting their own back catalogue in a series of performances that will see their own compositions radically transformed,” says Higgs. “It is an interesting moment of self-reflexivity for the band – and the city – especially so as New Order continue to record and perform new work.

“True Faith seeks to consider the persistent nature of their influence and the persistent relevance of their work. It is the ongoing nature of their influence that I find most compelling: the fact that ideas that germinated in – an often bleak – late 1970s Manchester, when the band members were in their early 20s, still continue to resonate in wholly original and unexpected ways.”

Raf Simons, Closer (2003/2004), Courtesy of The Raf Simons Archive; Photo: Etienne Tordoir
Installation view of ‘True Faith’ at Manchester Art Gallery. © Manchester City Galleries. Photography: Michael Pollard

“I’m part of this ‘heritage industry’ and I’m very glad, because they were fucking great,” continues Savage, triumphantly. “If they weren’t good I wouldn’t want to be involved but they were wonderful, so what’s the problem everybody?

“I like the fact that there are lots of artists there [at MAG],” he continues. “It’s more interesting to me than a whole bunch of clone groups trying to do New Order. I’d much rather it was fine artists, to me that’s interesting, because it shows persistence of New Order and Joy Division as an idea beyond being a rock band.”

True Faith is on show at Manchester Art Gallery until September 3. Entry is free.

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