Friday, 10 December 2010

The Art of the Album

The south bank’s OXO Tower is known for its vertiginous height, but resting at its base at river level is a small gem of a gallery, currently home to ‘The Art of the Album’ exhibition. The Hyper Gallery specialises in “rock n roll image making” - it is not often that one is welcomed to a gallery by the sounds of Led Zeppelin’s Tangerine.

The inspiration for this exhibition is the 30th anniversary of Peter Gabriel’s career as a musician and songwriter. The son of an electrical engineer, Gabriel was the flautist in the Phil Collins-led Genesis, but later went on to release solo material, start the WOMAD movement (the festival of which takes place every August near Reading) and make a name for himself in humanitarian endeavours. The Labour party also listed him as one of their largest private donors back in 1998.

Around half the prints on display are from Peter Gabriel albums, but do not let any potential ignorance of his music put you off. Artists have created mesmerising artwork for albums such as Ovo (Nils-Udo), Passion (Julian Grater) and Scratch My Back (Stephen Gschmeissner and Marc Bessant), the latter depicting two red blood cells locked in a tender embrace.

Oasis, Bowie and the Beatles also feature, as well as numerous examples of Hipgnosis’ work. The design trio and friends of Pink Floyd formed in 1968 and have worked on many Pink Floyd covers as well as Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, AC/DC’s superbly named Dirty Deeds Done Dead Cheap and Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die!. It don’t come more rock n roll than that.

Probably Hipgnosis’ most iconic and well-known work is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, the unforgettable light-splitting prism, which is on show here. Also included is the suitably haunting image of Battersea Power Station with a giant inflatable pig hovering over it, album art for the bleak and nihilistic Pink Floyd album, Animals; the ingenious Back Catalogue, showing five Floyd albums painted onto the backs of five pretty women and York Tilyer’s head-spinning, eye-watering photograph from Peter Gabriel’s 2000 Millennium Dome Show.

Album art does not solely make a record’s plastic encasement prettier. The artwork may resonate with the music inside - a visual version of the sounds within. It may depict the particular place in life the artist is at. It may serve to shock, outrage or entice. Or it may be nothing more than the caprice of the artist who created it or the musician whose music it is.

Regardless of how the album cover came to be, album artwork draws us in. Back when the albums in this exhibition had just been released, album artwork would have been much more significant. People bought music not just for the aural pleasure but also as a collector’s item, the physical ownership of music. Nowadays, most people download music and transfer it to an mp3 player, cutting out the need for any album artwork, despite still being able to see it on an iPod screen.

Records in the 60s, 70s and 80s were in the LP (vinyl) format which made the album art all the more striking for its size, thus making it all the more necessary to have a real work of art on the cover. For some bands, especially Pink Floyd, the artwork on an album cover was part of the whole Floyd experience.

At that time, the main channel for promoting musicians’ new records would have been primarily through visual aids: billboards, magazine adverts, album covers. Today there are many more dimensions available to help promote musicians and their music such as MTV, Twitter and heat magazine. That is not to say that we have lost the ability to make great album covers. Biffy Clyro’s Only Revolutions and the Stereophonic’s Pull The Pin are great recent examples - both oddly reminiscent of Gschmeissner and Bessant’s Scratch My Back with its ying and yang quality.

The Art of the Album runs until mid January. All prints are available for purchase at the gallery or online (subject to availability!):

For more examples of stunning stills from Storm Thorgerson (one third of Hipgnosis), log onto

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