Open for viewing

London, 9–15 October 2021

Christie's is proud to partner with Radiohead's Thom Yorke to present artworks by Stanley Donwood, created for the albums Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). The six major works presented in this virtual viewing room are offered in our First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online sale. 

‘Yes, it’s just record covers and artwork, adverts, marketing. But no. For us, it was never just that’

- Thom Yorke
Stanley Donwood’s creative partnership with Radiohead began over a quarter of a century ago with the release of the band’s third EP, My Iron Lung (1994). Donwood met frontman Thom Yorke while both were at art school in Exeter and has produced the artwork for every Radiohead release ever since –including the most recent A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). 

Alongside a practice that spans drawing, painting, printmaking, digital collage and animation, Donwood has worked on a number of projects including masterminding an immersive audio-visual installation at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht and publishing a wordless graphic novel, Bad Island (2021). Not bad for a self-effacing figure who has called himself ‘the untalented Mr. Donwood.’

Donwood’s themes are often bleak, typically referencing technological dystopia, mendacious politics and ecological disaster. Yet, he maintains a sunny disposition, separating himself from his art with a pseudonym: in everyday life he is Dan Rickwood. A pioneer in his use of both analogue and digital techniques, he draws inspiration from a vast range of artistic avenues, ranging from Robert Rauschenberg’s collages to the ravaged landscapes of Paul Nash, Piranesi’s engravings and the early graffiti photographs of Brassaï.
Donwood’s cover for Radiohead’s seminal fourth album Kid A (2000) –followed just months later by Amnesiac (2001), whose special edition package won him and Yorke won a Grammy Award – remains one of his most iconic creations. Featuring jagged, digitally-stretched white mountain peaks before an ominous sky, it spoke powerfully to the anxieties of a new millennium, not to mention the vertigo of the band themselves, who had struggled to navigate the enormous success that followed OK Computer (1997).

As is typical of their joint creative process, Donwood holed up with Radiohead during the writing and recording of Kid A, building his work around the album’s developing mood, Yorke’s lyrics and the studio location. He had dark things on his mind, including news images of the ongoing conflict in former Yugoslavia, death tolls measured by ‘swimming pools filled with blood’ in a book by Alan Moore, and the gibbeted crows he saw in the fields around the empty Gloucestershire mansion where the band were staying. These motifs all found their way into his work, which he later reflected ‘was about some sort of cataclysmic power existing in landscape.’ 
The project’s haunting mountains, lakes and valleys exhibit the strong sense of place that runs throughout Donwood’s practice, from OK Computer’s nightmare suburbia to the woodland mysticism of The King of Limbs (2011); for Amnesiac, he would re-imagine the mythical Minotaur as a pitiful, weeping figure, representing a monstrous humanity lost in labyrinth of its own creation.

Along with countless sketches, Donwood’s primary work for Kid A took the form of large, atmospheric canvases — six of which are offered in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online —scored and slashed to form fierce fields of texture and colour. Photographs of these paintings were later scanned and draped over 3D topographies in a computer programme, creating new, digital landscapes that could themselves be virtually explored. Recorded excursions into these experimental spaces — further blurred and hybridised with the original scans — would lead to the final cover. ‘I had not seen anything like what we were making before,’ remembered Donwood, ‘but these were very strange and disturbing times.’
‘We started to use the computer to collapse geology into itself and to exaggerate mountains and gorges, to populate the landscape with stalking creatures like pylons that had come to life, with half-completed cartoon behemoths and floating red cubes, aerial swimming pools of blood’

- Stanley Donwood
The promotion of Kid A was no less radical. Radiohead released no singles and put out no conventional advertising. Instead, they released short, cryptic videos known as ‘blips’ –with extracts from the album played over animated imagery by Donwood – which were broadcast without explanation on MTV, and could be streamed freely in the fledgling image-world of the Internet. A format without precedent at the time, the blips broke a long period of almost total media silence for the band, sending their fans into a frenzy of speculative excitement. Their online publicity also saw the screen debut of the beloved ‘modified bear’, a gleefully menacing character inspired by a story Donwood had told his young daughters.
As we navigate our own strange and disturbing times some twenty years after Kid A, Donwood’s apocalyptic vision has lost none of its impact. His groundbreaking work for Radiohead is more than the worthy visual accompaniment to a seminal, innovative body of music. Art, like music, is a way of understanding the world: as desolate as that world may seem, Donwood continues to find new ways to make sense of it, uncovering hope, humour and even beauty as he voyages the dark terrains of the human condition.
‘How we work? From the music,mostly, but concepts fly around… often things just move down river just finding their way’

- Thom Yorke