The Sex Pistols music blares out incongruously from Rome’s stately Villa Medici, once home to powerful aristocracy and now the prestigious French Academy which is staging the first ever retrospective into Punk visual art.
The exhibition takes a unique look at Punk Rock art, which developed as a counter-culture in Britain, the United States and elsewhere in Europe in the 1970s and is famous for a style reminiscent of ransom notes written in letters cut from newspapers.
“Europunk, Visual Punk Culture in Europe from 1976-1980”, as the exhibition is entitled, aims to show how the movement continues to have an influence on visual arts and fashion, according to Eric de Chassey, director of the French Academy in Rome.
De Chassey said the Villa Medici, which has housed French artists for the past 200 years, often plays on links between “past, present and future… a very important element in this exhibition.”
The 500 or so items included in the exhibition come from private collections and museums across Europe, including posters, T-shirts, flyers and fanzines, many created by anonymous artists.
The exhibition also boasts some iconic Punk images such as the British artist Jamie Reid’s “God Save The Queen” canvas for a Sex Pistols single, and Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s “Destroy Shirt”, also made famous by the Sex Pistols.
“As far as I’m concerned, the division in history of art between ‘high’ and ‘low’ works makes no sense,” De Chassey told AFP.
“Europunk” opens with a rare video of the first television appearance in 1976 of the Sex Pistols, the English group credited with initiating the punk movement in Britain, and ends with a spot by another English rock band, Joy Division, on the BBC in 1979.
The exhibition dedicates an entire room to the French art group Bazooka, founded in 1974 by five students from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the elite fine arts school in Paris, whose revolutionary graphics influenced post-punk artists, particularly in Britain and the US.
“It’s funny to see this, 35 years on. We were ignored for a long time… isolated because we didn’t fit the mould,” said Bernard Vidal, one of the group’s founding members who went by the nickname ‘Bananar’.
Olivia Clavel, otherwise known as ‘Electric Clito’, said they were marginalised because of a their uncompromising approach: “We didn’t make any concessions at all, we were hardline.”
Bazooka shot to infamy in 1977 when they were invited as art directors at France’s left-wing newspaper Liberation, often waiting to the last minute to send it to the press so their subversive illustrations could not be changed.
In an attempt to reign in the riotous group, Liberation offered to give Bazooka its own newspaper, ‘Un regard moderne’.
“We were like a rock group that did visual things. We felt very rock. It was music in drawing and painting,” said Vidal.
Though the exhibition comes too late for the members of Bazooka — forced to disband and get real jobs — after years of derision, the French Academy says it hopes that Punk visual art has finally begun to gain the recognition it deserves.
The show runs until March 20 and will move to the Mamco Museum of Modern Art in Geneva from June 8 to September 18.