Original artwork for some of the world’s greatest album covers is now on display at the Ulster Museum. The exhibition entitled The Art of Selling Songs: Music Graphics from the V&A includes some 70 album covers, sleeve notes, programmes and posters from a wide-ranging spectrum of musical genres dating back from the 19th century through to 2016. The exhibition is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Among the artwork and objects are posters from the late 1800s advertising French and British live ‘smoking concerts’, rare record sleeves for artists such as Louis Armstrong and Blue Mitchell right through to the complex sleeves designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album.
In between are 1920s discs made from rubber, shellac and minerals, vinyls that emerged after the Second World War and the introduction of cassettes in the 1960s and CDs in the 1980s.
The exhibition also celebrates the contribution of a range of well-known artists and designers from the late 19th century to the 21st century, including Henri Gabriel Ibels, Reginald Mount, Andy Warhol, Albert Watson, Peter Saville and Julien Opie and reflects the changes in printing methods, design trends and how performers influenced how they wanted to portray their personality on album covers and flyers.
Senior curator of art at National Museums NI, Kim Mawhinney, says the museum team has hugely enjoyed working on the exhibition.
“From the 1960s to the 1980s there was an explosion in iconic music imagery, from psychedelic graphics to punk collages and sleek postmodernist looks. These rich and imaginative visuals were often produced by star designers attached to record companies.”
She adds: “There are album covers here which the general public will see and recognise but what will be most striking are the most recent additions including the 2014 artwork for Royal Blood’s eponymous album and the 2016 record sleeve for Ash & Ice by The Kills - these are two really lovely album covers. The Royal Blood cover is by an artist called Dan Hillier - just the detailing of this woman’s costume that you see on the cover, it’s absolutely beautiful. Ash & Ice by the Kills is the most recent album cover included in the V&A collection.
“There are some very interesting album covers where art really does cross over into pop - you have big names like Andy Warhol who did the design for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album - it has a zip and an opening fly and dates from 1971. Then we have Sol LeWitt who did a record sleeve for American composer Philip Glass. Then you have a wonderful portrait of the four members of Blur by Julian Opie - which is really iconic. The actual portrait of that is in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s like a cartoonish effect and it’s actually originally very large scale.
“The cover for the Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club has to be mentioned as one of the most elaborately distinctive album sleeves and it was designed by British pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth - we don’t have the cover - which is a collage of all the world leaders - we have the inner fly cover which was quite an interactive thing that encouraged you to cut out a moustache and sergeant stripes and things so you could be like the Beatles were on the cover.
“There is so much fantastic art work here for albums across so many genres of music and from different eras, over 70 artworks from the V&A from the music hall days right through to the present day, with both UK and international work.
“Within this we have curated a section ourselves called Overtones: Irish Music Art, which showcases the world of Irish bands from the 1960s to the present day right through to artwork that was made to publicise Snow Patrol’s gig at Ward Park 3, which was painted by Marian Noone and was first painted on a gable wall in Bangor. We’ve gone beyond album cover art to explore other imagery relating to music.
“Our Overtones section starts with Van Morrison’s Them, the Undertones, Rudi. One of my favourite pieces of artwork here is the original Rudi Big Time single. When Terri Hooley produced that record they couldn’t afford to make a sleeve for it so they folded bits of printed paper with a mummy image on the front of it. One of my friends had an original and so we included it in the collection. It’s very cool.
“Another favourite would be the photographs for Madonna’s True Blue album by Herb Ritts.”
The plethora of vinyl, CDs and cassettes is a whistle stop tour through some of the most iconic moments in music history from music hall to punk, post-punk, rock, grunge and pop, with the gallery divided into ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’. For Side A the colours on the walls are painted with reference to Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, fluorescent yellow and pink, while Side B is all about the postmodern trends and the artists like Damien Hirst who produced art in service to music.
“As you move into the postmodern era you see artists enjoying a lot more freedom in terms of what they produce, whereas before the artsist were much more dedicated to trying to reflect the essence of the music and the art was really an advertising tool - say with The Supremes you get that 1960s motown feel design, reflecting their sound, whereas as you move into the postmodern era the album covers are really becoming artworks in their own right,” adds Kim. “And even when you think from the 1980s onwards, you know, people were beginning to collect album covers as pieces of art. Ikea had their own sort of frame for inserting album covers so you could hang them on the wall. You still see the more modern pieces referencing older art movements though - say with a Kraftwerk album we have that really references Russian constructivism. Bauhaus use a very distinctive bauhaus design of very sort of minimalist black and white geometric design.
“Visitors of all ages who see these pieces will re-assess the value of the more postmodern artwork displayed here which stands shoulder to shoulder with older, established classic covers,” she adds.
“We haven’t been able to include everything that people might want to see but we’ve really enjoyed having some interactivity with this exhibtion and hearing from the public about the pieces that appeal to them - we want to have a conversation with the public about music and the artwork used to publicise it.”
The exhibition is a radically updated edition of the original 1991 V&A show called The Art of Selling Songs: Graphics for the Music Business 1690-1990.
The exhibition’s curator, Riikka Kuittinen, said: “This exhibition arrives at a moment when the digital revolution reaches full maturity, and music and visuals filter through screens like everything else. This exhibition looks back at the vibrant graphic art of music with curiosity and considers the now. I am thrilled to see this exhibition at the dynamic Ulster Museum, and in Belfast with its internationally significant music scene.”
The Art of Selling Songs: Music Graphics from the V&A exhibition will be accompanied by a series of creative Saturday workshops and gallery talks. The exhibition will be at the Ulster Museum until September 15. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.nmni.com.