x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bryan Ferry retrospective at Dubai museum showcases his art and music

Few recording artists embody the fusion between music and art quite as well as Bryan Ferry, the influential frontman of Roxy Music, whose album art is celebrated in a comprehensive exhibition now on show in Dubai, writes Nick March.

The Bryan Ferry exhibition Olympiz at the Sal Sali Private Museum in Dubai. Charles Crowell / The National
The Bryan Ferry exhibition Olympiz at the Sal Sali Private Museum in Dubai. Charles Crowell / The National

It is an hour into opening night of Olympia, the Bryan Ferry retrospective at Dubai's Salsali Private Museum (SPM), and the fabled British recording artist is working the room. Or rather the room is working him.

Dressed in a navy blue suit, Ferry, 67, is stood in front of a whitewashed wall onto which images of record sleeves from his decades-long career are being projected. Oversized prints of his album artwork are all around him too, neatly hung on the gallery's smooth surfaces, while clusters of well-wishers, fans and art collectors swirl expectantly about the gallery, each waiting to catch Ferry's eye.

Cameras, smart phones and tablets are everywhere, every gadget ready to record the moment when that person or this fan shared the spotlight with the man who was the creative force behind Roxy Music - a band ranked within Rolling Stone magazine's survey of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and whose influence helped shape the careers of everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Scissor Sisters - as well as a string of solo successes.

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Few recording artists embody the fusion between music and art as completely and comfortably as Ferry, who often prefers to describe himself as a "successful artist" rather than as a conventional rock star.

Educated at Newcastle University in the north-east of England, where he studied fine art under the tutelage of the late influential pop artist Richard Hamilton (who was, according to Ferry, "a really cool guy, incredibly intelligent and quite scary"), he burst out from tertiary education to form Roxy Music in the early 1970s.

The band released eight studio albums - beginning with their self-titled debut album in 1972 and concluding with Avalon in 1982 - each LP an epic piece of experimental sonic sculpture and, more often than not, serving up several slices of perfect pop, each too exquisitely packaged in sleeves art directed and conceived by Ferry, the band's influential frontman.

Seven of Roxy's eight album covers are on display in Dubai - the risqué Country Life, which caused something of a rumpus when it was released in 1974, is the exception - as well as a series of photographs of the supermodel Kate Moss, the star of the sessions for Olympia, Ferry's 2010 album, and a collection of some of the best images to adorn his solo work, from the John Swannell photographed cover to The Bride Stripped Bare (1973) to the classic equine beauty of Mamouna (1994). Each one of those images is presented in an oversized format, the scale of these prints reflecting the ambition evident in the original pieces themselves.

Chatting during a short visit to the emirate last month, Ferry says the exhibition "adds some lustre to the music", although anyone who has followed his career will know his work is rarely less than high gloss in the first place. That much is evident in the Roxy covers, which trail a succession of glamorous models in arresting poses and intriguing situations.

The retrospective arrives after previous outings in London, Paris, Oslo, Berlin and Los Angeles - the Dubai exhibition is the most comprehensive to date - and at a busy time artistically for Ferry, who has announced a 2013 United Kingdom tour and released The Jazz Age via his Bryan Ferry Orchestra, an album of instrumental covers from his storied back catalogue.

The album's songs emerge through a complex fog of arrangement. Stripped of their creator's voice and reengineered from top to bottom, the track listing often provides the only clue as to which song the listener is experiencing, before the original presents itself as if it had been recorded in the corner of some smoky 1920s speakeasy.

For his part, Ferry says the tracks on The Jazz Age are almost "deliberately oblique" in their reimagining of some of the highest peaks of his career including Love is the Drug, Don't Stop the Dance, Slave to Love and Virginia Plain.

"It is nice to hear them as different as possible, just paying lip service to the original tunes," he says. Clearly the formula has struck a chord. The album topped the jazz charts in the UK last month.

"There are two main inspirations for the record: one is Louis Armstrong's New Orleans music … which is very infectious, full of vitality, simple earthy direct music. Then there are the much more arranged and orchestrated songs [which] imitate the style of Duke Ellington's Cotton Club band."

He had, he says, simply wanted to see how the songs "stood up" when he first began to think about reframing 13 of his most-famous cuts as Jazz Age classics.

"People never think of me as a songwriter really unless they are fans … I have this image of the crooner. I thought it would be great to do an album where it showcased the best of the writing without the singing.

"I tend to sing at the end [of the recording process] and then that becomes the focus of the song, but generally it is the other bit of it that is the main part of the iceberg.

"When I make a record, most of the time I am listening to it as an instrumental … I think it is a shame I have to spoil it by singing on it," he says with almost implausible modesty.

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If The Jazz Age has helped Ferry rediscover his own songs, then the SPM exhibition provides a comprehensive trek through the art that accompanies that music.

Ferry says he is "philosophical" about his career now that he has reached "a certain age", while stressing that the retrospective is not an ending and "doesn't mean I am not looking forward as well".

And he is, looking forward.

He remarried last year to Amanda Sheppard (he was divorced from Lucy Helmore, the cover star of Roxy's final album Avalon, in 2003) has a new album of original material in the works and is keen to play live dates outside the UK.

As if to underline this last point, he played an 11-song set to an invited audience the night before the SPM opening, beginning his performance with I Put A Spell on You and Don't Stop the Dance, one of the most enduring classics from his 1985 solo album Boys and Girls, and closing with two fondly remembered covers, Let's Stick Together and Jealous Guy, Ferry's reworking of the John Lennon classic which became Roxy's only UK number one single when it was released shortly after the ex-Beatle's death in December 1980.

For now though, Olympia provides a window onto the world of Roxy Music's visual landscape and the image both the band and, particularly Ferry, so rigorously cultivated.

In Ferry's telling - he is a thoughtful interview subject, seeming to endlessly edit and rephrase his words before they pass from his lips - the sound was carefully crafted over lengthy periods, while the vision, which is so integral to the Roxy package and so widely celebrated by the exhibition, was "chucked together in a matter of days".

Ferry takes up the story.

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"I finished the music [for the first album] and suddenly we needed the cover. I thought 'I can't give it to Island Records art department'.

"The norm in those days was to have the band standing in a dark alley, looking kind of moody. I didn't want that at all. I wanted something more cinematic, more show business. I thought a glamorous woman would be a great way to advertise the record," that same matter-of-factness peaking through again.

The glamour was provided by the then relatively unknown model Kari-Ann Muller, who was a friend of designer Antony Price (Ferry's long-term collaborator), and the photo was shot by Karl Stoeker. The image itself, which on one level is simply a pretty girl in a provocative pose, is also a near perfect facsimile of glossy advertising agency imagery, redolent of Coca-Cola and cigarette commercials from 1950s America.

With that, the die was cast and the notion of the Roxy girl became the accepted iconography for each successive studio album.

For Your Pleasure followed in 1973, with its arresting image of Amanda Lear, who later gained notoriety and fame as Salvador Dali's muse.

"It felt like a different record and it looked completely different, but it carried on this theme … I thought let's try and do the next one with another glamour girl, but more urban. Looking back you can see how it did marry with the music."

Stranded, featuring Marilyn Cole, once again shot by Stoeker, followed later that year, then Country Life, in 1974 and 1975's Siren, which famously features Jerry Hall. Each cover appeared to top the last, adding progressive amounts of glamour, desire, tension and energy.

Four years after Siren, Roxy returned with the mannequin-festooned club scene of Manifesto before releasing Flesh and Blood, whose cover foretold the trend for conceptual stock photography that would later almost completely overrun the 1980s.

The band's final album, Avalon, arrived complete with a becalmed falcon on its cover. The bird of prey is held by Lucy Helmore, Ferry's then-pregnant first wife, and neatly anticipates his preparation to take flight from the band, pursue his solo career and, indeed, impending fatherhood. Otis, the eldest of the now-divorced couple's four sons, was born a few months after the album's release.

Ferry describes the business of making the album covers as akin to a "cottage industry", fondly remembering those exciting pre-digital days when "we didn't even know if we had the picture until they came back from the developer."

This he contrasts with the Kate Moss sessions for Olympia, when he sat and watched the frames, shot by Adam Whitehead - a fashion photographer who years before had assisted Mario Testino for Madonna's arresting Ray of Light album cover - being filed to a laptop. Olympia represented a departure from the norm of his solo releases, which tend to favour images of Ferry himself on their covers. Instead, the supermodel Moss was persuaded to become a latter-day Roxy girl.

"I wanted the solo work to look different," he says, but with Olympia, which featured musical collaborations with ex-Roxy members Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno on its 10 tracks. "I thought it was time to do a cover with a glamorous girl, but not with an unknown.

"I wanted someone who had a bit of history. The fact that Kate Moss had an element of notoriety about her suited the Olympia theme because the original Manet painting was very much a cause célèbre of its day," he says referring to the 1863 Edouard Manet oil on canvas nude of the same name that provided the point of reference for the shoot.

"It is a great picture, very mysterious. I like mystery, I like it in music, I like it in everything," he says.

The Olympia sessions proved so fruitful - "Kate loved the idea of being a Roxy girl," according to Whitehead - the photographs of Moss as a latter-day femme fatale spawned a whole exhibition and, in turn, a cottage industry all of their own.

Much of the rest of his solo artwork plays to the archetype of Ferry as a King of Cool or the Sultan of Suave, a construct, a shorthand he finds a little glib.

But in the images on display here, it is not hard to understand why that opinion has formed, particularly when one sees the white T-shirt and black shades of In Your Mind, the leather-jacket seriousness of The Bride Stripped Bare and the impossible coolness of the setting and the framing of Another Time, Another Place, shot in the achingly glamorous surroundings of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. "There is something of Last Year in Marienbad about it," he says, referencing Alain Resnais's 1961 enigmatic cinematic masterpiece. Manolo Blahnik, the Spanish fashion and shoe designer and dressed in a pink cardigan and green slacks, is one of four extras who can be found in the background of this mesmeric album sleeve.

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The SPM retrospective arrives at an interesting time for the art form it honours. Battered by successive changes in format from vinyl to CD and bruised by the final shift towards digital, album artwork might well be a dying art. Why waste pots of money on the process when a cheap shot of the band "looking kind of moody" might now suffice in the virtual and immediate world of 21st century record stores?

SPM's previous exhibition Iran: RPM collected a selection of vinyl covers from the soundtracks of Iranian films produced between 1965 and 1974. Described by the gallery as a "graphical treasure", Iran: RPM might also easily be called a visual riot, presenting a succession of boundary-pushing and arresting covers from a "golden age" of Iranian graphic art and creativity.

The decision to follow RPM with another exhibition celebrating album artwork was entirely intentional, according to its founder Ramin Salsali, who wanted to present a loose narrative of eastern and western record sleeves. More than that, Salsali wanted to pay homage to the "intellectual side" of music and art that Ferry represents. "We don't have these type of artists who have this type of craftsmanship any more." Today, he says, you can sit down at a computer and create a cover in minutes.

The lavish cover production of The Jazz Age, like the rest of Ferry's work, represents the complete antithesis to that contemporary reality. Produced in multiple formats - digital download, CD with accompanying book, vinyl and limited edition vinyl folio, packaging together the album's tracks on six 10" vinyl records and a collection of rare artwork - it celebrates the fading discipline of album art and the bold, original 1920s illustrations of the French artist Paul Colin.

"I think I am quite serious about creativity," Ferry says. "Maybe the reason anybody creates things is that they want to do something better than themselves." The Olympia exhibition recognises and honours that ambition and its attainment.

Olympia is at Salsali Private Museum, Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai until February 28, 2013. For details of opening times, check SPM's website at www.salsalipm.com

Nick March is editor of The Review.