When Johnny Rotten penned the apocalyptic lyric “you’re future dream is a shopping scheme” for the Sex Pistols gritty debut single Anarchy in the UK, I bet he didn’t expect Punk to be given its own retrospective at the acclaimed Haywood Gallery forty years down the line. Glue-sniffing promoting, treason inspiring and once described as a ‘quasi-Nazi spin off’ by Eric Burdon, the iconic movement is brimming with bare-faced attitude. This autumn the Hayward Gallery, London embraces the spluttering seventies counter-culture and brings anarchistic, anti-aesthetic art to the gallery space.

© PUNK: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, Rizzoli, 2012

The exhibition reads like an angry retrospective, coughing up relics of a more nihilistic time. Showing work from before, during and after the height of the Punk years of the late seventies, it explores proto-punk ideologies, displays key graphic designers such as Jamie Reid and Gee Vaucher and explains some of the anarchistic and non-conformist attitudes of this pulsating era.

Yet rather than being a cliché ode to the innovative anti-establishment, defying the likes of Sid Vicious and Joe Strummer and plastering Never Mind the Bollocks posters in every available corner, the exhibition is revealing, diverse and commendably informative. With displays from lesser know graphic designers such as Gary Panter, album covers by the likes of The Zits (heard of them? No, me neither) and rare cuttings from a variety of Fanzines (literally, fan-made magazines) including Sniffin’ Glue, Sideburns and Birmingham publication NMX, the exhibition gives a voice to forgotten Punk amateurs as well as innovative artists.

…as well as beating his own brain with liquor and drugs…

© PUNK: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, Rizzoli, 2012

Highlights include a cartoon showing the rich tapestry that is the history of Punk. It depicts an illustration of the time Lou Reed released his controversial album, Metal Machine Music – an album of white noise and guitar feedback – and explains how as well as beating his own brain with liquor and drugs, Vicious also enjoyed cracking unexpecting cowboys around the head with instruments. A crudely drawn diagram describes how, on a disastrous tour of the US in 1978, Vicious reacts to having a can of beer thrown at him by smashing a fan over the head with his bass – Punk at its purest.     

The exhibition is not simply a voyage through stormy moments of bass-bashing brawls however. Coupling offensive stories with academic insights, the gallery guides you through with commentaries explaining the social significance and cultural importance of Punk. Partly stemming from the Situationist International movement and incorporating Dadaist themes, the movement had a strictly Do-It-Yourself attitude and deep hatred for commercialism. Shock tactics and a jagged energy were key aspects of the anti-aesthetic too, and the display portrays this theme through the many independently created 7-inch 45 (records) on display. This sea of records includes an album titled Meet the Residents by The Residents; a subversive take on the famous album Meet the Beatles! which sees the faces of the Fab Four being disfigured through the use of collage.

…a typically offensive Punk print…

© PUNK: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, Rizzoli, 2012

The influence of the movement on today’s world is huge and it is only right that these socially antagonistic artists get the recognition they deserve. The influence on Banksy for example is impossible to avoid and the exhibition reflects this by including works such as Winston Churchill (2003) – a typically offensive Punk print, complete with an image of the illustrious icon with a brash yellow Mohican hairstyle.

A mix of posters, fliers, album sleeves, ‘zines and manifestoes, the small exhibition is rich in content and with patriotism being the vibe of choice this year, it is refreshing and though-provoking to visit an anarchistic exhibition. Honouring Punk’s anti-commercialist stance, the exhibition if free to view and whether as a fan or as a hater, it is certainly worth a visit.

About The Author

A University of Reading English and History of Art graduate based in London and embarking on a career in journalism.

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