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Evolution of Pink Floyd on show in Dortmund

Jens von Larcher
September 14, 2018

Pink Floyd formed during a time of upheaval in the 1960s. Now they're the focus of an exhibition at the Dortmunder U. DW found out how their album covers were made and what they have to do with a French chemistry book.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains (Getty Images(AFP/D. L. Olivas)
Image: Getty Images(AFP/D. L. Olivas

"The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains" is set to open this weekend at the Dortmunder U center for arts, after a run in London in Rome. Back in 2017 when the exhibition opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, DW spoke with Victoria Broackes, senior curator, and Aubrey "Po" Powell, creative director for Pink Floyd. Together with his partner, the late Storm Thorgerson, Powell founded the creative team Hipgnosis in 1968, designing many of Pink Floyd's legendary album covers.

DW: What can visitors expect to see at the Pink Floyd exhibition?

Broackes: It's a journey across some 50 years, more or less. The beginning to the end is quite a lot of years to cover. We start in psychedelic London in the swinging '60s and the impact that the music from London and the UK was having on the rest of the world. And Pink Floyd really presented this sort of very arty edge of it. 

The original members of Pink Floyd: Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, Richard Wright, Nick Mason
The original members of Pink Floyd: Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, Richard Wright and Nick MasonImage: Pink Floyd Music Ltd

Aubrey, you started working with Pink Floyd in their early days. What was going on back then?

Powell: A Saucerful of Secrets from 1968 was the first album cover Storm Thorgerson, my partner at Hipgnosis, and I devised for them. Completely given carte blanche, they said to come up with an idea. We were, I suppose, quite intellectual and well-read and we were interested in everything, from reading Jack Kerouac through to, you know, Marvel comics.

And of course you are looking at 1968 and this was a time when there was revolution in the streets. Paris was in flames, in London we were occupying the London School of Economics, and the Royal Collage of Arts would be taken over by the students.

And you're looking at the anti-Vietnam riots going on in America and the advent of the Black Panthers. The world was in chaos and in the midst of this, Pink Floyd were writing and making very different sounds and music and recording very English, pastoral material and taking their lyrics from everything from the I Ching to things like Alice in Wonderland.

Victoria, where did you collect the items on display and what was the concept behind their presentation?

Broackes: A lot of the items came from the band members themselves, although I would say we have a number of objects in the V&A collection which had been here since the '70s and '80s. We have also supplemented a lot of material about the context around Pink Floyd or the designers and collaborators that worked with them.

We are a museum that is about the creative industries, so there is the band and the music, but there are also the people who design their album covers, the people who create their stage sets, the technicians, the engineers, the architects and so on.

Powell: When I came in to design the exhibition, I decided to do it in chronological order, album by album by album. So when you walk around you see something in each room that is related to that period of time, whether instrumentals, music, graphics, visuals, album covers or stage sets. 

In the past, the V&A also hosted the extremely successful "David Bowie is" exhibition. Are exhibitions about pop stars a model that guarantees success?

Broackes: (laughs) That is a really good question! There have been one or two since David Bowie — not here but elsewhere — that haven't really worked. So I'm pleased to say it's not simply gathering a whole lot of things, throwing a lot of money at it and putting it on display.

No, the story hast to be right. Not that there is just one story, but the way you tell it and what you are telling. It's a different story all the time. For Bowie, we had 60 costumes; in this exhibition we've got two shirts. It's a whole different story: it's about architecture, design and the touring industry growing in the '80s and '90s. It's about a band that started as a cult success and became a global industry.

Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" album cover
The inspiration for 'The Dark Side of the Moon' album cover came from a chemistry bookImage: Pink Floyd Music Ltd

Also on display are the famous cover artworks, among them the iconic The Dark Side of the Moon cover. Aubrey, you designed that cover together with your partner. How did you come up with the idea for it?

Powell: We were in a studio in Abbey Road and Pink Floyd said, "We're fed up with your surreal photo designs. Can't we have something more simple? Like a sort of box of chocolates with a singular image on it?"

And I left rather depressed, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, that's not what we do.' But I was looking through a book of French chemistry and my partner Storm saw this picture of a prism going through a glass on a table from sunlight. And he said, I got it! A triangle with light going through it creating a rainbow. That is Pink Floyd!

The exhibition starts in the late '60s when pop culture was shaped. How important is that era — and Pink Floyd in general — today?

Broackes: For me, this era is a golden era. It seems to have been hugely important in music and in shaping of what was to come. However fantastic the music is today and even though great stars like Beyonce have a worldwide audience, it's not quite the same, I think, as what we're looking at here when music and sounds and society moved along in a much more closely knit fashion.

"The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains" runs from September 15 to February 10, 2019 at the Dortmunder U.

Jens von Larcher Reporter focusing on culture and lifestyle