The artwork for Closer was delivered to Factory Records two months before Ian Curtis’s suicide. Hyperreal Gothic statuary, tombstone typography: you can call this the “Premonition of Genius”, if you find any use for such ideas. Or you can face facts, and accept that right there on the face of every stately, exact and evocative Peter Saville design, from the late 70s to the present, stands a vast, unresolved, undeclared despair, that all art and all design and all expression are done and dead and over and impossible.

In life, when death arrives, we need ritual to structure and channel and contain the unleashed chaotic energies of loss: the rage, the confusion, the impotence, the rest. And some of us reach for the well-tried prefab ritual of religion, and some of us grope around to make our own maybe, and some – like Saville – somehow do both at once. And of course because he seems so militantly to absent himself, the richness of content is often actually something we ourselves supplied. Besides, any past-time pop culture stood on plinths in a museum can put you in mind of the Museum of Curiosities – and when it’s your own youth and dreams and hopes and passions reflecting back at you, how can the exhibit not be “Welcome to the Necropolis of Formerly Apparent Possibility”?

When young (with Factory mainly) Saville was wild and free; later on he had a name but also a mortgage, and pragmatic compromise ruled him, alert sadness the sign of the change: thus the catalogue’s version of the tale – in which a claim for bold originality is cast as the most hackneyed critical narrative of all. The essays switch between a nostalgia for the given writer’s own wilted salad days and a hack torrent of professional buzzwords: “post-modern appropriation”; “recontextualisation”; “referentiality”; “retrievalism”; “subversion” – the usual (highly) suspect latinate parroting of a flatulent ‘What’, to hide away from the awful difficult deep force of a ‘Why’ or a ‘How’? Here’s a more telling story: when young, with an absolute free hand – including budgets which beggared his employers – Saville made a mausoleum out of every single project. Later, a hand hired for the cachet of his off-the-peg wilfulness, but always under constraint, he merely continued ruthlessly to glimpse or highlight or cut to the mausoleum in every single project.

Spread out carefully here in glass cabinets, a sleeve or poster next to its occluded source – some moment of force or potential in 1830 or 1890 or 1920 or 1950 shut down and buried by the ordinary LookAtMeNow march of fashion-shift – you notice two things: one, that he always reached out to sources with vigour and power in the original, vigour and power that he loved and admired, word and colour and image and space, and two, that every ounce of his own gift as a designer is thrown into the weaving of counterspells against the original, to freeze-contain its revenant effect in the world, to quiet the dead, not to waken them, to refuse to work so unguardedly on others, ever, himself. I will not be haunted; you shall not be possessed: what was once can be no more. There’s a lifelong mistake at the root of all this: the wide-flung rigour with which it’s repeated proves this, and helps undo it.