PARIS — Unlike the widely ridiculed Costume Institute show PUNK: Chaos to Couture, which examined punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the 1970s through its enduring influence today, Europunk: An artistic revolution (1976-1980) — recently closed at Cité de la Musique — was rigorously periodic and broader in range. Bucking the current trendy inclination of heterogeneous cabinets-of-curiosity, the intriguing curator Éric de Chassey (and deputy commissioner for Europunk, David Sanson) adhered to a tight chronological timeline (placing the artists in the political and cultural context of their era) when presenting the unctuous “revolutionary” DIY aesthetics of punk and post-punk hardcore of this period. By following chronologically punk’s penchant for Dadaist disorder (and its affected anarchist inflections), previously unsniffed influences of European disillusionment with ideals, general political confusion, and creative self-loathing can be discerned here.
Granted, punk is now a well-established cultural moment in the official history of the 20th century. But here, French punk came to the fore, such as in a central display of graphic art by Olivia Clavel, Lulu Larse, Bernard Vidal, Jean Rouzaud, Kiki Picasso (Christian Chapiron) and Loulou Picasso (Jean-Louis Dupré), members the French collective Bazooka productions. I also admired the proximately installed cover for the album Armed Forces (1979) by Elvis Costello & The Attractions by Barney Bubbles along with work by designer Jamie Reid, whose connections to The Situationist International tie together neatly the British-French cultural exchange that is at the heart of this exhibition. (Though it is augmented by work from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Spain.) But appropriately, this chronological timeline starts and finishes with Reid’s main client, the iconic Sex Pistols, the principal face of punk to the world. Thus the first part of the exhibition is devoted to the Sex Pistols.
Europunk was first initiated and presented by de Chassey at the Academy of France in Rome, Villa Medici, then at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Geneva and BPS 22 in Charleroi. But at the Cité de la Musique Europunk has received its electronic voice, as a superb audiovisual augmentation has been added that was impressive in conveying the sense of emergency that was very much the underlying the apocalyptic tenor of the time. The music and performance videos retain their malevolent, ugly qualities today.
The visual graphic art portion contained a bevy of zines, posters, flyers, leaflets, drawings, collages, album covers, and clothing (a total of about 500 objects) that recounted the unsettling vitality of the punk aesthetic with its Dadaist cut-and-paste artistic production method, often conveying a morbid fascination with violence and terror through political posturing. Punk art is discovered here to have been a fundamentally chaotic artistic movement, extremely dynamic and brimming with dexterous shifts in mood and texture that depict well a revolution without a cause, making use of ambiguous/systematic visual provocations (sometimes superficially wanton) that by now have been well tamed. But the still images presented here retain something of the urgency that had led to their creation, and therefore have a kind of sad, albeit paradoxical, beauty.
The radicalization of the logo with a generally subversive nihilism is admirably typical of the art, especially a misuse of political signs (including the Swastika) as a weapon aimed against the order. Here again one grasps the French influence on punk in terms of détournement, the technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, then taken up by the Situationist International, that consists in turning the expression of the capitalist system against itself, like turning slogans and logos against the political status quo. In this context I was pleased to have the opportunity to see again Malcolm Garrett’s Dadaesque cover collage for the Buzzcocks’ “Orgasm Addict” (1977), a punk sexist masterwork, and the delicate minimal Peter Saville cover for Joy Division’s record “Unknown Pleasures” (1979).
Like Dada, punk culture gestured at the desire to make both a clean sweep of the past along with a profound cultural renewal. But in this show, the emphasis is on cultural appreciation, with the ironically careful display of seditious punk items — such as the philosopher chic “Only anarchists are pretty” shirt that features Karl Marx and a gloomy “Believe in the ruins” banner from Swindle — as well as a whole series of anonymous radical works of subversion collected throughout Europe in the context of economic crisis. Thus I found this a compelling exhibition that points to a highly atmospheric imaginative emancipation relevant to crisis culture in Europe today.
Europunk : An artistic revolution in Europe (1976-1980) took place at Cité de la Musique (221 avenue Jean Jaurès, Paris) from October 15–January 19.