Groninger museum magazine and the dark days of David Bowie

 

Follow the link for the Groninger Museum magazine which contains an edited version of my article http://www.groningermuseum.nl/museum-magazine-nr03-2015

I wrote another piece which is about the outfit and the pose in David Bowie’s last videoclip Lazarus:


The dark days of David Bowie


David Bowie released his final album Blackstar two days before his death on 8 January 2016. The album contains clues that suggest that Bowie was preoccupied with death. The title alone might refer to a manifestation of cancer and to an unreleased Elvis song called Black Star, which is about death. There are also references in and relating to his visual presentation for the video clips of the Lazarus and Blackstar singles, not only to death, but to earlier moments in his career as well. The choice of Bowie’s pose and outfit for a promotional photo for Lazarus, for example, is striking (fig. 1), as it is an exact copy of those used for a promotional photo for Station to Station from 1976 (fig. 1). What possible significance might the references to the outfit and the pose have?

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fig. 1. Left: Steve Schapiro. David Bowie for the album Station to Station. 1976. Photo: Corbis. Right: David Bowie for the Lazarus video. 2016. Photo: www.johanrenck.com.

The period around the making and release of Station to Station was described by Bowie as ‘Singularly the darkest days of my life…’. Between 1974 and 1977, Bowie struggled with cocaine addiction, which at times drove him to the brink of insanity. He occupied himself with Kabbalah and esotericism in an attempt to protect himself from evil influences. Forty years later, while recording Lazarus, he had already had cancer for some time and it was clear that he did not have long to live. This latter period possibly reminded him of the darkest days of his earlier life.

Unlike garments from his earlier glam rock period, the costume does not refer to other designers or artworks. However, the stripe design has traditionally been seen as something that was worn by outsiders. In the Middle Ages, for instance, it was mainly worn by prisoners, women of easy virtue and clowns. In the twentieth century, artists used it as a form of rebellion; examples include Picasso, James Dean and Elvis Presley.

After 1976 Bowie wore similar outfits several times during tours, including the Glass Spider tour in 1987 (fig. 2), and the Outside tour between 1995 and 1996 (fig. 3). The Outside tour outfit captured the sinister and tribal aspects of humanity, which was preparing for the millennium. This type of outfit thus appears to have had ominous connotations throughout his career. However, unlike the one in the Lazarus video clip, these costumes were not exact copies of the Station to Station costume.

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fig. 2. Still from the Glass Spider tour, during the song Heroes. 1987. Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aH7dw1eXTB0.

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fig. 3. David Bowie’s costume for the Outside tour 1995–96, on display at the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Groninger Museum, Groningen, 2016. Photo author.

Besides making music, Bowie also occupied himself with other artistic disciplines. He made paintings, collected art and was interested in art history. His list of 100 favourite books therefore includes a number of books on art, including the Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall. The pose Bowie adopted is reflected in sculptural art. What does this pose tell us if we view it symbolically, as in Hall’s dictionary?

The pose corresponds to that of the kouros statue. Kouros translates as ‘youth’ or ‘young man’; such statues were produced in Greece during the Archaic period (fig. 4).

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fig. 4. Marble statue of a kouros (youth). Ca. 590–580 BC. Marble from Naxos. 194.6 cm x 51.6 cm. Photo: New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (32.11.1).

The kouros statue was used among other things as an embodiment of a god. In the nineteenth century it was thought that the kouros only represented the god Apollo; nowadays we are no longer certain of this attribution. Apollo was an important deity in ancient Greece: he was the god of the sun, but also of healing, prophecy, logic, and later of poetry and music.

Many of the statues are found as funerary ornaments. Despite the statue serving a variety of purposes, the appearance as well as the pose remained the same. The kouros therefore embodies mortality as well as immortality. The images potentially possessed magical powers, or were intended to demonstrate the beauty ideal of the athletic youth. Bowie used the kouros statue again, on the cover of the album Tin Machine II from 1991 (fig. 5).

 

Tin Machine.tif
 

fig. 5. European album cover for Tin Machine II. 1991. Photo: Victory Music.

Why did Bowie reuse this outfit and pose? With both he seems to refer to the, until then, darkest period in his life, thus indicating that he was once again experiencing similar difficulties. In addition, the outfit looks like a red thread running through Bowie’s career. He wore it in difficult times, but even in less turbulent periods the outfit seemed to convey an ominous message.

The pose Bowie has adopted resembles that of the kouros. As mentioned earlier, this type of statue represented immortality as embodied Apollo, the god of healing, music and poetry. These properties of the kouros as Apollo would have appealed to Bowie in his darker periods. In addition, the kouros also represents mortality, as evidenced by its use as a funerary ornament, yet it also refers to death. This dichotomy of mortality/immortality is also found in David himself. Although we have to bid farewell to the mortal David Robert Jones, David Bowie is like Apollo: immortal, and his legacy will certainly endure and inspire. 

 

English translation by Stefan Osadzinski
English editing by Mark Poysden

 

Bibliography

Exhibition texts: David Bowie Is. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013.

Gorman, Paul, ‘Paul Gorman, Bowie and Fashion’, in Showstudio, 24 March 2016. <http://showstudio.com/project/david_bowie_oooh_fashion/essay_paul_gorman> Accessed 12 June 2016.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 2nd edition. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.

Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. A World History of Art. 7th edition. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2009.

Patricia Ruiz Blanco. David Bowie – Word on a Wing – (VH1 Storytellers) FULL. Youtube. Youtube, 29 January 2013. Web: 26 January 2016.

Stewart, Andrew F. When Is a Kouros Not an Apollo? The Tenea ‘Apollo’ Revisited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

2 Replies to “Groninger museum magazine and the dark days of David Bowie”

  1. It is the wands of Horus pose, the master position, the ability to move between the material and spiritual. Not dark. The lines are the silver cord.

    1. Ah! Thanks for a new view on the pose, I’ll have a look at it. He does refer to the kouros statues a lot and not to Horus, unless you regard the kouros as a successor of the Egyptian statues. I’m sorry if my English is not that great, but I hope you’ll get what I’m after.

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