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David Bowie appears on a giant screen with various costumes he performed in, as part of a retrospective exhibition, entitled David Bowie Is, at the V&A Museum in London.

Joel Ryan/The Associated Press

David Bowie will not be attending his own retrospective. It is a letdown, of course, but also wholly appropriate. The man who is everywhere at the moment is also, mysteriously, nowhere to be found.

The blockbuster show, which opens today at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, is already the bestselling exhibition of its kind in the V&A's history. Much of the artist's legendary decoration is on display – from Ziggy Stardust's glitter paint to Major Tom's jumpsuit. It seemed that every British celebrity, art lover and fashion addict flocked to the champagne-soaked opening party earlier this week.

But not Bowie himself. Nor will he go on TV or radio or do a sold-out tour for his brand-new, critically acclaimed album, The Next Day, his first in a decade. He will not amass a small army of followers on Twitter and employ an assistant to tweet to them.

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He will do none of these things, and not because he can't – Bowie could fill every stadium from here to Ouagadougou.

No, it's because he demurs for reasons that, like everything else he does, are well-considered and entirely his own. It's his notable absence at the centre of the swirling, glittering madness of his own fame that makes him so completely magical.

Wandering around the exhibit earlier this week, I was most impressed by the sheer breadth of Bowie's curiosity. Long before postmodernism crumbled the barriers between high and low culture, he was playing mix-and-match with every genre, tradition, sound and look that took his wildly eclectic fancy.

Punk rock to glam rock, surrealism to space-age futurism, pop art to classical performance, he was the original magpie of British pop. His early technique of writing lyric snips on scraps of paper, then tossing them together in a jumble – on fascinating display in the exhibit – stands as a metaphor for his artistic process as whole. If Bowie's career is defined by a single theme, it's his obsession with contrast and clash. He is the master of mixing it up.

The show, entitled David Bowie Is, starts, appropriately, at the very beginning. He was born David Jones, in Brixton, south London, in 1947. A skinny kid with a penchant for a schoolyard dust-up, "Davey" later moves to the London suburb of Bromley with his parents – a cinema usherette and a promotions manager – where he grows into an ambitious adolescent and cultural omnivore who greedily gobbles up every kind of art available. As a teen, he listens to fusion jazz, and reads D.H. Lawrence and Albert Camus, not because he understands this stuff (as he tells us in a recorded headset voice-over) but because he "determined to be a fan" of art that intrigued him.

A 1963 black-and-white promotional photograph for his first band, the Konrads, shows the preternaturally pale teen with a pompadour, perched on a drum, his right hand resting jauntily on a saxophone as though it were a walking stick. If you look past the buttoned-down suit and tie to the icy eyes and feline smile you can see hints of the Thin White Duke to come.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the David Bowie story is that he was, by accelerated pop-cultural standards, a late bloomer. After leaving school at 16, he spent much of the sixties playing in bands and dabbling in performance. In 1965, he changed his stage name from Jones to Bowie – the first sign of the string of artistic personas that were to follow. With its forlorn astronaut protagonist Major Tom, 1969's Space Oddity would become his first hit. But it wasn't until 1972, which saw the birth of Bowie's most iconic alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, that his true breakthrough occurred.

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His pivotal performance of Starman, the first single from his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, on BBC's Top of the Pops was a watershed moment in the history of British youth culture and rock 'n' roll. While the sixties had been all about authenticity – the grit of the Rolling Stones and the folk of Bob Dylan – Bowie ushered in an entirely new era in the seventies, one that embraced play over politics, and masquerade over sentiment. It was, for lack of a better term, the beginning of postmodernism.

From the moment Ziggy Stardust stepped onstage with his tangerine hair and garishly rouged lips, nothing would or could be quite the same. He was an androgynous, alien creature; human in form but intergalactic in style – aberrant and elegant.

In a videotaped interview with the V&A, Gary Kemp, of seminal British new-wave band Spandau Ballet – an outfit that owed as much to Bowie then as Arcade Fire does today – summed up Bowie's willingness to push the envelope by dryly noting that "in the seventies, having long hair simply wasn't enough."

Bowie's iconic quilted jumpsuit in a multicoloured graphic print (designed by Freddie Burretti) looked wildly futuristic, almost space-age in the concert footage of the time. But looking at it on display at the V&A, it seems strangely mundane, its colours muted and stiff on its clear plastic mannequin. Glance back at the video screen to where the young Bowie jerks his mic to and fro, hips writhing above a pair of vinyl lace-up boots, and the garment springs to life.

That's because, unlike today's pop stars, Bowie wore the clothes, not the other way around. While Lady Gaga is devoured by her meat dress – a grand distraction that cannot make up for the mediocrity of her music – Bowie was the real deal. His music was (and is) dirty and dazzling. Most important, it delivered on the promise of his packaging.

And it's easy to forget just how revolutionary Bowie really was – not just for the legion of then-silent gender-or-sexually confused youth, but for the freaks, the geeks and every closet weirdo in between. Here was a powerful, talented white male who flaunted his bisexuality and revelled in his androgynous looks. His clothes and makeup were pure downtown drag, and yet there was nothing remotely camp or silly about him. Newsreels at the time depict hilarious scenes of elderly ladies coming out to gawk during Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour – a travelling spectacle he designed to look like a cross between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and George Orwell's 1984.

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Bowie is, and always has been, a control freak – that much is evident from the endlessly scrawled notes and sketches, handwritten scores and stage models on display at the V&A. His influences are so wildly disparate and seemingly random that it's both magical and dizzying to contemplate them all at once. Who else could combine punk rock, Marlene Dietrich-style cabaret, Oscar Wilde and urban rhythm and blues? Bowie is the ultimate scavenger, a thief of the highest order, an artist who made himself the canvas.

One astonishing 1969 promotional video on display at the V&A, entitled The Mask, depicts Bowie in pale face paint and a white, skin-tight leotard. He performs the story of the mask that becomes the face – a parable of deep symbolic significance to an artist who spent a career chan-neling characters of his own devising. His performance is unsettlingly precise, each movement so elegantly measured that, watching it, you feel as if he probably should have been a mime all along. Perhaps the voice, that wonderful raspy rock tenor, was not the key to his genius after all.

You get a glimpse of him – or one of the many versions of him – and then, in typical Bowie fashion, he is gone.

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