Museum exhibition catalogues are probably purchased more out of a sense of self-improving duty rather than pure pleasure, but the accompanying volume to the V&A’s blockbuster Bowie exhibition (until 11 August) is essential reading for fans – and it seems everyone’s a fan since the surprise comeback – of the man who defined an era with his avant-garde refashioning of pop. Far more than mere nostalgia, the exhibition is a visual and aural celebration of the Starman – the 1972 Top of the Pops costume is framed by footage of that memorable performance – as well as an exploration of the concept of ‘inner space’ (JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition from 1970 is one element that gives the exhibition its wider cultural context). Bowie soaked up so many influences it’s almost worth an exhibition in itself: at the V&A we get to see the cut-up lyrics inspired by William Burroughs (there’s a photo of their meeting), the Diamond Dogs tour designs based on 1984 (Sonia Orwell refused permission for an official 1984 show) and the photo of Little Richard he kept from a young age (an early clue to Bowie’s flamboyant theatricality).
The hype surrounding this exhibition is justified by its bold, non-chronological design and the access the curators had to Bowie’s extraordinary archive: the book and the museum show allow us to gaze at such items as his Berlin house keys, the legal letter changing his name from David Jones and the singer’s sketches and hand-written lyrics, as well as an array of outlandish costumes that provoked family arguments during 1970s editions of Top of the Pops. The book is a lavish, visually stunning companion to an exhaustive, eye-popping exhibition that chronicles Bowie’s reinvention over five decades and definitively captures this alien pop icon’s pioneering performances and his enduring influence on contemporary culture.