By Simon Donohue
On the top of a wooden desk in the library at the Salford high school I attended, someone had carved the words “Ian Curtis, RIP”.
It was around 1983 when I first saw it and yet it stuck in my mind somehow, even though Joy Division wouldn’t enter my personal consciousness for at least another 20 and I wasn’t a fan of New Order at that time (I was converted by Substance in 1987).
There’s a pencil sketch of a similar desk among the items on display as part of True Faith, a celebration of the work of Factory Records creative director Peter Saville and others, forming part of the 2017 Manchester International Festival. That etching is a love heart with the names Peter, Ian, Bernard and Stephen – the collective members of Joy Division.
I mention it only because it’s a reminder of how some legends grow while other diminish. It’s almost sacrilege to say it these days, but there was a time in the not too distant past when few people particularly cared about Joy Division or spoke of Ian Curtis in the way they do today. New Order were an extraordinary contemporary outfit but their previous history was still to reach legendary status.
I’m not sure when all that changed (I’m guessing around 15 years ago) but the band’s place in the history of the city has been somewhat elevated in more recent years. And there’s no more proof of that than the exhibition devoted to the iconic status of the creativity that surrounded the musicians.
Curated by Jon Savage, True Faith is about the process of building the image of Joy Division and New Order, rather than the music itself. There’s a growing debate that Manchester needs to move on now and that the Factory bands are part of the past. Whatever your opinion, there’s no arguing with the potency of True Faith, particularly if you have some knowledge of the Factory story.
The most instantly recognisable exhibits are perhaps Peter Saville’s now iconic posters promoting Joy Division: Fact 10 – Unknown Pleasures adorns many a fast fashion t-shirt, while the yellow ‘hearing protection’ poster continues to inspire artists and architects alike.
Speaking of inspiration, the exhibition includes the original painting which inspired Saville to produce the cover of Power, Corruption and Lies. Flowers was based on the Fantin-Latour painting of flowers Saville saw hanging in the National Gallery, which has kindly loaned the picture to Manchester City Art Gallery. The postcard of the picture Saville bought back in 1983 is also displayed.
Two handwritten notes are other highlights given significance by the passing of time. One is a page in New Order manager Rob Gretton’s spiral reporters notepad, in which he is discussing the way that the band should act, and be perceived, differently to others. Most moving are lyrics to Love Will Tear Us Apart, handwritten by Ian Curtis. Visitors are urged not to photograph it, so I didn’t. It’s definitely worth a visit to see it for yourself.
Visit the Manchester City Art Gallery website for more details.
True Faith is at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 3 September. Check the gallery website for details of a host of related live events.
MIF2017: True Faith At Manchester City Art Gallery