‘A Craving for Crystallisation’: Themes Suggested by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

‘I shall no longer paint interiors, people reading and women knitting. They will be people who are alive, who breathe and feel, suffer and love.’
Edvard Munch

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the prints of Edvard Munch. (British Museum, London, until 21 July)

Munch was a troubled genius. Born in 1863, he grew up in Kristiania (modern day Oslo), a city that like many others at that time had been shaken by industrialisation, political upheaval, poverty and disease. His father was a medical officer, severe, pious and dogmatic. His mother died of TB when he was 5 and his sister died of the same illness when he was 13. Another sister was taken to an asylum. He was himself a sickly child and he worried throughout his life that he had inherited his family’s mental health issues. As a young man he fell in with Bohemians and nihilists. He took to drinking and brawling, and became an alcoholic. He couldn’t sleep. He thought about death all the time and contemplated suicide. 

'The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side from the day I was born.'

Munch channelled all this stress and anxiety into his art. A self-portrait has skeleton arms. A mother despairs over a sick child. A crowd walks towards us with blank, empty faces. A melancholy man cradles his head in his hands. A woman stands alone on a shoreline with her back to us. A naked couple kiss by an open window. An anxious figure puts its hands to its ears and screams.

‘There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.'

We may find it hard to identify with Munch as an individual – he just seems too tortured, confused and self-pitying. But he certainly captured something of the modern condition: isolation and angst; feeling alone in the crowd; struggling for identity and belonging, for a sense of meaning and purpose; worrying about love and death. 

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Munch also teaches a number of lessons for people working in the creative industry. From the outset he was an artist with ambition. He was not afraid to cast aside the conventions of the category and set himself lofty objectives.

‘We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create art, or at least lay the foundations of an art, that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.’

Such was Munch’s conviction, that he was untroubled by setbacks. When in 1892 his first one-man exhibition in Berlin closed after one week, he regarded the critical outrage as a badge of pride, a confirmation of his radicalism.

'Never have I had such an amusing time - it's incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir.'

In his art if not in life Munch was admirably resilient. He recognised that his difference represented his greatest creative asset.

'My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?’

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

Munch also embraced conflict and ambiguity. He wanted to express raw feeling and emotional truth in his work, and he was drawn to articulate his own intense paranoia and uncertainty.

This is particularly evident in his troubled encounters with women. For Munch women were frail and innocent, sinister and threatening. He desired them and he feared them. He was possessive and jealous, in awe and in doubt. 

No surprise perhaps that Munch’s relationships tended to be tempestuous and short-lived. Flame-haired Tulla Larsen was so besotted that she followed him round Europe. But he couldn’t face marriage. When they separated he shot himself in the hand and cut their joint-portrait in half.

A woman’s long hair wraps itself around her lover. Is it an embrace or an entrapment? A woman puts her arms around a man’s shoulders, his head bowed. Is she consoling him or preying on him? 

'My afflictions belong to me and my art - they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety, I would have been a rudderless ship. My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life.’

We can also learn from Munch something about the power of the repeated image. He returned again and again to the same themes: the melancholy loner, the jealous lover, the femme fatale, the sick child, the haunting moonlight, the enchanted forest, the existential scream.

He explored these themes in paintings, lithographs and woodcuts; in etchings, drypoints and mezzotints. He experimented with bold colour washes; with heavy outlines, sharp contrasts and simplified forms; by cutting the print block into jigsaw pieces and reassembling them.

With every new articulation of a subject Munch brought a fresh perspective, and the images gained resonance through repetition.

'The point is that one sees things at different moments with different eyes.’

Munch sold more than 30,000 prints in his lifetime. They gave him access to a broad public, made him famous, financed a comfortable later life and enabled him to keep hold of many of his paintings - which he loved so much that he called them his ‘children’. 

So, although it’s hard to identify with Munch the individual, his art echoes with profoundly modern themes; and he teaches people in creative professions some powerful lessons: hold lofty ambitions for your craft; be resilient in the face of criticism; channel your emotional conflicts into your work; celebrate your difference; and embrace the power of repetition.

‘Art is the opposite of nature… Art is the human craving for crystallization. Nature is the infinite realm from which art takes its nourishment.’ 

Munch spent a good deal of his life travelling around Europe. But for his last 27 years he lived, comfortable and alone, on his estate outside Oslo. Despite all his paranoia, hypochondria and melancholy, he reached the ripe old age of 80. He died in 1944 confident in his own immortality.

'From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.’

 

'Oh, it's not easy to resist temptation,
Walking around looking like a figment of somebody else's imagination.
Taking ev'ry word she says just like an open invitation,
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation.

Like a finger running down a seam,
From a whisper to a scream.
So I whisper and I scream,
But don't get me wrong.
Please don't leave me waitin' too long,
Waitin' too long.’

Elvis Costello, 'From a Whisper to a Scream'

 

No. 229

Three Sisters: Dreams of Progress

The Wyndham Sisters by   John Singer Sargent 1899

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent 1899

'It seems to me that everything is going to change little by little, that change is already under way, before our eyes. In two or three hundred years, perhaps in a thousand years, no matter how long, there will be a new, happy life. Of course, we will not be there any more, but that's why we live, work, suffer. We are creating that life - it's the only goal of our existence, and if you like, of our happiness.’ 
Vershinin, ‘Three Sisters’

I recently saw a fine production of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters.’ (The Almeida Theatre, London, until 1 June) 

The Prozorov sisters live with their useless brother in a provincial town. Their parents have passed away and they feel isolated, lonely, cut adrift.

'For us, three sisters, life has not been beautiful - it chokes us, like weeds.' 

Older sister Olga is a spinster working long hours as a teacher. Middle sister Masha married young and is now dissatisfied with her husband Chebutykin:

Chebutykin: ‘I’m happy, happy, happy.’
Masha: ‘I’m bored, bored, bored.’

Irina, the youngest of the three, worries that love has passed her by:

'I've never been in love. I've dreamt of it day and night, but my heart is like a fine piano no one can play because the key is lost.’

The Prozorovs long for a return to Moscow where they grew up - for its culture and sophistication, its lively conversation about music, literature and language. Moscow represents everything they have loved and lost, everything they hope for in the future. As brother Andrey puts it:

'In Moscow you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and where nobody knows you, and yet you don’t feel that you’re a stranger. Here you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger... a lonely stranger.'

No one does very much in ‘Three Sisters.’ What action there is tends to happen off-stage. The characters spend most of the time gossiping, musing, philosophizing, taking another trip to the samovar. They are nostalgic, bored and wistful. They discuss the importance of work without doing very much of it. In particular they meditate on the meaning of life. What’s it all about? Why are we here? Why do we persevere when our daily existence seems so full of struggles and hardship? 

One of the houseguests, the nobleman Tuzenbakh, sees little sign of any progress or improvement in the human condition:

‘Life will remain the same as ever, not only after two or three centuries, but in a million years. Life does not change, it remains constant, following its own laws, which do not concern us, or which, at any rate, we will never discover. Migrant birds, cranes for example, fly and fly, and whatever thoughts, high or low, enter their heads, they will still fly on without knowing why or where to.’

Masha isn’t satisfied with this analysis:

Masha: 'Isn’t there some meaning?’
Tuzenbakh: 'Meaning? … Look out there, it’s snowing. What’s the meaning of that?’ 

Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, who has recently arrived in town as the local battery commander, offers a different perspective. He suggests that, despite its many challenges and disappointments, step by imperceptible step, society is moving forward, making advances. He illustrates this conviction by considering the plight of the three sisters:

'It goes without saying that you are not going to overcome the mass of ignorance around you. Little by little, as you advance in life, you will be obliged to yield and be swallowed up in the crowd of a hundred thousand human beings. Life will stifle you. But you will all the same not have disappeared without having made an impact. After you there will be perhaps only six women like you, then twelve, and so on, until finally you will become the majority. In two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, amazing, astonishing.’ 

Masha, who yearns to believe in something, gradually falls for the charms of the battery commander:

Cover of first edition, published 1901

Cover of first edition, published 1901

’First I thought he was strange, then I was sorry for him…then I fell in love with him.’

I found myself sympathising with the arguments of both Tuzenbakh and Vershinin. Like Tuzenbakh I accept that the human condition is timeless and we must take solace in the small things just to get us through the day: in modest kindnesses and friendly gestures, in the comedy of circumstance and the charms of nature. But like Vershinin I still believe that, in the long run, with industry and collective effort, society can move forward.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in progress. At work we are confronted with contracting opportunities and intractable problems: increasing hours, decreasing job security, automation, discrimination, stress and procurement. 

More broadly in the world today we are beset by political turmoil, economic inequality, rampant populism, escalating terrorism, technology’s dark shadow and environmental decay. Everywhere we look we see difficulty and defeat, thwarted hope and disappointed ambition. Sometimes it seems that our best years are behind us. 

And yet, like Vershinin, I think it’s important to retain an optimistic view. We can pull through if we keep our heads to the sky. Confronted with impediments and reverses, Dr Martin Luther King and President Obama were inclined to quote the nineteenth century abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker:

'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ 

Sadly things do not work out well for the Prozorov sisters. Before the play is over there is tragedy, frustration, compromise. And it doesn’t seem like they will make it to Moscow any time soon. Vershinin reflects mournfully on life’s challenges and disappointments:

'I often think, what if one were to begin life over again, but consciously? What if one life, the life already lived, were only a rough sketch so to speak, and the second were the fair copy?’


'Don't give up and don't give in,
Although it seems you never win.
You will always pass the test,
As long as you keep your head to the sky.
You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.
Be optimistic.’

Sounds of Blackness, ‘Optimistic' (G Hines / J Harris / T Lewis)

No. 228

 

 

 

 

A Trip to the Moon: Move Fast and Make Things

Screenshot 2019-05-02 at 07.11.59.png

Georges Melies’ ‘A Trip to the Moon,’(‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’) is celebrated as the first true science-fiction film. Released in 1902, it presented cinema as a medium for fantasy, when hitherto it had been a vehicle for social realism. ‘A Trip to the Moon’ was only 14 minutes long, but this was revolutionary in an era when two minutes was an ordinary running time.  

Melies himself plays a professor who convinces his fellow scientists to join him on an expedition to the moon. They travel in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore the moon's surface, escape from an underground group of lunar locals (Selenites), and return to Paris with a captive in triumph. 

Melies had a background in theatre and magic, and ‘A Trip to the Moon’ boasts impressive stage sets, bizarre costumes, amusing pratfalls and dramatic explosions. He gives us a mushroom-filled grotto, lunar snow and engagingly insect-like aliens. He employs innovative cinematic techniques like superimposition, substitution-splice editing, pseudo-tracking shots and dissolves. We see the earth from the moon, and the stars come alive. We visit the Palace of the Selenites and watch the space capsule crash land into the sea. It’s a glorious flight of fancy. 

But there’s also something troubling about ‘A Trip to the Moon’. Although it’s cheerful and comic in tone, one can’t help noticing the destructive impact that our heroic scientists have in the course of their adventures.

In one iconic scene the moon is represented as a face, and the space capsule lands painfully in its right eye. When they disembark at their destination, the explorers take to slaying the fragile locals and go on to kill their king. And at the end of the film the humans parade their captive Selenite in a somewhat colonial fashion.

So despite the fact that ‘A Trip to the Moon’ is a light-hearted entertainment, it does suggest some serious questions.

Why do explorers and pioneers consistently seem so wilful in their destruction of the new environments and societies that they discover? Why are they always out to conquer and tame, exploit and gain, shackle and own?

These questions could be posed to the world of business too. 

Why is it that innovators and entrepreneurs seem so set on destroying everything that has gone before them? Why do we celebrate disruption as a prerequisite of progress? Why indeed do we applaud Mark Zuckerberg’s famous mantra: ‘move fast and break things’?

The Facebook founder was probably right about the imperative of speed in our accelerated world. But surely in an era of finite resources and fragile ecosystems, devastation and profligacy should not be culturally or commercially acceptable.

As creative professionals our focus should not be on destroying or dismantling; on eradicating the past or eliminating the competition. Rather we should turn our skills to preserving, reducing and replacing; to facilitating, enabling and enhancing; to solving, inspiring, and making. We should regard creative destruction, not as a code of behaviour, but as an oxymoron.

It seems obvious to me that creative industries should primarily concentrate on creating value – for businesses, institutions, consumers and society - and on doing so without damaging cultures, communities and the climate in the process. 

Perhaps our motto should more reasonably be: ‘Move fast and make things.’

 

'In starlit nights I saw you. 
So cruelly you kissed me, 
Your lips a magic world, 
Your sky all hung with jewels. 
The killing moon 
Will come too soon.

Fate 
Up against your will. 
Through the thick and thin, 
He will wait until 
You give yourself to him.'

Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘The Killing Moon’  (I McCulloch / L Pattinson / P De Freitas / W Sergeant)

No. 227

 

 

A Cravat Too Far: Complacency Is Not a Uniform Condition

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

Some time in the early ‘90s I was invited to a rather smart wedding at St James’s Palace. As it was a formal affair, there was a requirement for morning suit, which I’d never worn before. Eager to fit in, I made my way nervously to the nearest Moss Bros, where an expert assistant of few words but reassuring manner guided me through the process of hiring my outfit. 

Step by step he found me an elegant black morning coat, a dashing pair of grey striped trousers, a buff silk waistcoat. He advised me on how to manage my top hat on the day. It was really quite simple and straightforward. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: if I comb my hair, I could possibly pass muster as an authentic English gentleman. I began to feel very much on top of things. 

And then the assistant posed a question:

‘We just have one last decision to make. Will sir be wearing a tie or a cravat?’

‘Well, I don’t know. What will everyone else be wearing?’

‘It’s purely a matter of personal preference, sir.’

I hesitated for a moment. I had no experience to draw on here – no recollections of formal weddings from my childhood, no memories of days out at Ascot. However, having grown up in the ‘80s, I had been an admirer of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, of the cavalier style of the New Romantic movement. And so my natural inclination was towards something a little more theatrical.

‘I’ll take the cravat,’ I said with conviction.

And so one sunny Saturday morning I marched jauntily down Pall Mall to St James’s Palace in full morning dress, my outfit flamboyantly finished off with a red silk, paisley-patterned cravat. I was going to enjoy my brief excursion into the world of the aristocracy. 

The moment I arrived at the wedding venue, I stopped and surveyed the scene. To my horror I realised that every one of the other male guests was sporting a rather understated grey necktie. Of course! They all appeared so natural and appropriate, so casual and at ease. I, on the other hand, looked like an extra from an ‘80s pop video. I was mortified.

Reflecting back on what had gone wrong, I realised that my time at Moss Bros had been marked by increasing confidence. I became less alert at the end of the process than I had been at the beginning. My guard had slipped.

There’s a lesson here, I think, that commonly applies in the world of business.

We all know that we should be concerned about complacency; that we need to be ever vigilant, wary and watchful. But complacency is not a uniform condition. It has peaks and troughs. It seeks us out when we least expect it. It finds us when we’re most confident and self-assured.

Just at the last moment, we get careless and cocky. Our concentration slips, attention dips. And we make that critical error.

So as you reach the end of your pitch or project - as you approach the finish line - stay alert to slapdash slip-ups. Sustain an eye for detail. Always remember to dot the ts and cross the is.

'Man, you gotta take heed.
'Cause that same thing might happen to you someday
Everybody makes a mistake sometimes.
I know, because I've made mine.'

Otis Redding, 'Everybody Makes A Mistake' (E Floyd / A Isbell)

 

No. 226

Relative Values: Considering Collective Good in the Workplace

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

‘You think attitudes are all to do with whim. You understand nothing. Attitudes are all to do with character.’
Nrovka, ‘The Bay at Nice.’

I recently saw a compelling revival of David Hare’s 1986 play ‘The Bay at Nice.’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 4 May.)

We are in Leningrad in 1956, and Valentina Nrovka, a Russian artist, has been invited to the Hermitage to offer her opinion on the authenticity of a Matisse painting. 

Nrovka has had a fascinating life. She spent her youth living freely among the expatriate artists in Paris. She was taught painting by Matisse and had a daughter by a soldier who was just passing through. Then in 1921 she returned home to post-revolutionary Russia out of a sense of duty, of responsibility to the greater good. She now cuts a somewhat melancholy figure, disappointed by the flawed realities of the Soviet state.

‘Everyone here lives in the future. Or in the past. No one wants the present.’

Nrovka’s daughter Sophia meets her at the museum to seek help in arranging a divorce - a complex and expensive business within the Russian system. Nrovka, however, is sceptical of the durability of her daughter’s love for her new man, Linitsky.

‘We all have a dream of something else. For you it’s Linitsky. Linitsky’s your escape. How will it be when he becomes your reality? When he’s not your escape? When he’s your life?’

Nrovka is also more broadly critical of Sophia’s romantic talk of free will, rights and liberty. 

‘’I must be myself, I must do what I want…’ I have heard these words before. On boulevards. In cafes. I used to hear them in Paris. I associate them with zinc tables and the gushing of beer. Everyone talking about their entitlements. ‘I must be allowed to realize myself.’ For me it had a different name. I never called it principle. I called it selfishness.’

Whilst Nrovka is negatively predisposed to her daughter’s divorce proposals, she is happy to discuss the principles of painting that she learned from Matisse.

‘Each colour depends on what is placed next to it. One tone is just a colour. Two tones are a chord, which is life….No line exists on its own. Only with its relation to another do you create volume.’

We realise that Nrovka has applied Matisse’s artistic beliefs to her own life: she relinquished her individual freedom in pursuit of collective good; she chose belonging over independence; she found comfort in the context of shared homeland, culture and community.

Hare’s play resonated with me because Nrovka’s core arguments seem so unfashionable today. In the modern era we concentrate so much on self-help, self-improvement and self-actualisation; on individuality, autonomy and free will. We want to achieve our own particular goals, to realise our personal potential, to be the best that we can be. We all aspire to be a star performer, a hero or a headline act. We’d all like to play a leading role in our own movies. 

We talk less often nowadays about the rewards of shared success and collective accomplishment; about the benefits of belonging and participating; about team, comradeship, unity and kinship. 

And yet there are compensations to be found in mutuality and togetherness at work. There are consolations in subordinating the self to the collective. Indeed you could argue that in this age of interdependence it is only in the context of the group that we can ever attain individual contentment.

When investors seek to determine an asset’s worth, they don’t just look at its intrinsic value. They also take into account the value of similar assets, thereby establishing ‘relative value’. Maybe we should apply both intrinsic and relative perspectives to our own careers.

Reflecting further on Matisse’s creative practice, Nrovka observes that the great artist worked incredibly hard, finding inspiration in everything around him. When he was tired and needed to relax, he would put his palette down and go to the mountains.

‘You can’t paint a mountain. The scale is all wrong.’

'Here's my chance to dance my way
Out of my constrictions.
Givin' you more of what you're funkin’ for,
Feet don't fail me now.
Do you promise to funk, the whole funk,
Nothin' but the funk?
One nation under a groove,
Gettin' down just for the funk of it.
One nation and we're on the move,
Nothin' can stop us now.’

Funkadelic, 'One Nation Under a Groove' (G Clinton / G Shider / W Morrison / E Krause / F Harrison / T Kendrick / C Branch / O Johnson)

No. 225

The Room Where It Happens: Diversity Demands Good Governance

Screenshot 2019-04-10 at 22.46.19.png

'I’m past patiently waitin’.
I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation. 
Every action’s an act of creation! 
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow. 
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.'

‘My Shot’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

Some time ago I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘Hamilton’.

It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers and the man on the 10 dollar bill. He was ‘a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ who left the Caribbean to become George Washington’s right-hand man and the first Secretary of the Treasury.

‘Hamilton’ delivers a joyous, articulate mix of old school rap, hip hop and R&B. There’s strong characterisation, razor-sharp choreography, lusty singing, propulsive beats and a rotating stage. 

'I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.'

I was particularly struck by the way that rap’s brisk tempo and fluid construction lend themselves so well to a complex narrative. I can’t imagine a more traditional musical format so comfortably conveying, for example, the secret deal in which Washington DC is accepted as the nation’s capital in exchange for federal control over the debts accrued by the separate states.

Miranda has described ‘Hamilton’ as 'the story of America then told by America now.' The London audience when I attended enjoyed the subversion of the independence narrative being related by an ethnically diverse cast. We cheered the villainous King George III as one of our own. And we applauded when Hamilton triumphantly declared: ‘Immigrants! We get the job done!’

One of the key songs in ‘Hamilton’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, reflects on the fact that so many of the critical debates and decisions in history take place behind closed doors.

'We want our leaders to save the day,
But we don't get a say in what they trade away.
We dream of a brand new start,
But we dream in the dark for the most part,
Dark as a tomb where it happens.
I've got to be in
The room where it happens,
I've got to be in the room where it happens.’

'The Room Where It Happens’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

We may be familiar with this sentiment in the world of business. So often strategies, policies and practice are worked out in camera, in secret, in private; in corridors, over a beer, behind glass walls.

This seems particularly true of smaller and privately owned companies that have grown organically – where founders and leaders have informal, instinctive networks, ways of working and getting things done.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren has observed that non-participation in decision-making presents risks for the excluded.

'If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.’

Although you’ll hear Agencies talk a good deal nowadays about the imperative of diversity, you’ll not hear them talk too often about good governance. And yet fair and transparent governance is the means by which you can ensure that a diverse workforce creates diverse decision-making. It’s your insurance against group-think and double-talk. It’s the means by which you earn true colleague engagement. There’s no vocation without representation.

A mature business gives proper thought to the composition of its committees and corporate bodies; to participation on boards, excos, platforms and working groups; to the processes by which decisions are made. This is not just about fairness. It’s about effectiveness.

If you do nothing about this, you may find that people will take matters into their own hands.

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn,  Vogue,  1969

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn, Vogue, 1969

In 1968 Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm was elected the first black woman in Congress. In 1972, campaigning under the slogan ‘Unbought and Unbossed’, she became the first woman and the first African American to run for the Presidential nomination of a major party. Surrounded throughout her career by colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male, she passed on the following advice:

‘If you wait for a man to give you a seat, you’ll never have one. If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ 

No. 224

Who Is Normal? The Strange Beauty of Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

‘You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.'
Diane Arbus

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the early work of photographer Diane Arbus. (‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ is at The Hayward Gallery, London until 6 May.)

Diane Nemerov was born in New York in 1923. Her parents owned Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store, and she grew up in some comfort. At 18 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and soon after she took up photography. For just over a decade the Arbuses ran a commercial photography business, with Diane contributing as stylist and art director. In 1956 she quit and began life as an independent photographer.

'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'

Arbus wandered the streets of New York searching for subjects. She was drawn to Central Park, Times Square and Coney Island; to bars and barbershops, the subway and snack bars, movie theatres and the morgue.

'Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize.'

Arbus was fascinated by human frailty and eccentricity. Perhaps what we take for ordinary may be worth a second look. Here’s a slim kid with a toy hand grenade, a teenager in a monster mask, a uniformed usher by the box office, an elderly lady in a mink stole. Parents carry sleeping children. Here’s an anxious man yelling in the street, a couple arguing - snarling, eyes bulging - a mannequin in an evening gown.  The world seems somehow crooked, distorted, out of joint.

‘I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.’

Arbus’ pictures suggest stories that are just beyond reach, incomplete narratives that are about to begin. A down-at-heel Santa Claus walks the city streets. A boy in an ill-fitting boater wears a ‘Bomb Hanoi’ badge.  An elderly Uncle Sam looks depressed and tired in his tatty apartment. 

'If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.’

Arbus is also interested in our relationship with entertainment. She photographs the TV and the cinema screen: a blonde about to be kissed, a screaming woman with blood on her hands, a man being choked to death. She is particularly drawn to the world of stage performers and circus sideshows. She introduces us to trapeze artists, strippers and cha cha dancers; wrestlers, fire eaters and female impersonators. A clown in a fedora. We meet ‘The Human Pincushion’ and ‘The Jungle Creep.’ Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratoucheff gives us his Maurice Chevalier impersonation.

'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.'

In the past some critics expressed suspicion of Arbus. Is she just giving us a ‘freak show’? Is she exploiting the vulnerable? Is she lacking empathy or compassion?

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

I suspect that 2019 eyes have a quite different response. Arbus is clearly curious about the margins of conventional society. But she is neither judgemental nor sentimental. She takes people for who they are, revealing their essential humanity. Her pictures have a strange beauty.

'I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.'

I left the exhibition concluding that we are united by our flaws and foibles, our kinks and quirks. We all have idiosyncrasies. They’re what make us attractive, what make us human.

‘The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.’

In the communication industry, we are constantly considering core consumers and bull’s-eye behaviour. We like to determine average users, typical targets. But these calculations often take us to the anodyne, bland and boring. They represent a filtered reality, an edited truth.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962  , by Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 , by Diane Arbus

Arbus asks us to think again: Who is normal?

Surely in 2019 normal is diverse, irregular, bizarre and offbeat. It is strange and peculiar, different and contradictory, shifting and changeable. Normal is whatever we want it to be.

I’m reminded of a line I recently heard from jazz futurist Kamasi Washington: 

‘Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be celebrated.’

In 1971 Diane Arbus took her own life. She had been suffering from depression, an illness that had also afflicted her mother. She was 48 years old.

In one of her pictures from 1960 a homeless man in a shabby overcoat, trilby hat and zip-up sweater holds a dollar bill to the viewer. It is as if to say: 

‘What’s this for? Is it really worth it?’ 

 

No. 223

Some People Don’t Bounce: The Price We Pay for the Choices We Make

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

'What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.'

Solomon, ‘The Price’

I recently saw an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, ‘The Price’ (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 27 April).

Two brothers meet for the first time in sixteen years to sell their family furniture, which has been stored in the attic of a New York brownstone. Back in the 1920s their parents had been wealthy, but they were impoverished by the Great Depression. Victor, the younger brother, missed out on his education to care for his father. He became a New York cop and is now nearing cash-strapped retirement. Walter, the older of the two, broke free from the family and embarked on a career as a successful surgeon. 

‘The Price’ is a play about the corrosive effect of financial strife on family relationships; about a family at war with itself.

It draws on Miller’s own experiences of the Depression, which at its height saw one quarter of Americans out of work. Before the 1929 Crash his father owned a women’s clothing factory employing 400 people. He was wiped out and left traumatised, withdrawing into silent introspection. 

In the play Victor observes of the brothers’ father:

‘Well, some men don’t bounce, you know.’

Running through the drama is a conversation with an elderly furniture dealer, Solomon, who is carrying out a valuation of the attic’s contents. We gradually realise that the whole play is in fact a valuation: of choices made, paths taken, compromises reached.

In an interview in 1969 Miller explained:

'The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions. In this case, the price of being a socially responsible individual and the price of being a successful one.'

Walter has sacrificed his family relationships in the pursuit of career and status. He endeavours to make recompense now with financial and employment offers to Victor. But he comes to appreciate that forgiveness cannot be bought.

Victor, in his turn, has sacrificed his education and career for his father. But he has also deceived himself in the narrative he tells about the past. He and his father were, in fact, complicit in their co-dependency.

‘We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.’

I left ‘The Price’ reflecting on the fact that all the choices we make in life come with a price attached. When in business we opt for one course of action, we leave another unrealised. For every decisive action, there is a road not taken, an opportunity not fulfilled. We promote one candidate, we disappoint someone else. We prioritise one function, we relegate another. We invest in one initiative, we disinvest in others. Decisions carry costs.

This suggests some questions.

Do we consistently face up to the price we must pay for the choices we make? Do we truly own the consequences of our actions? Or do we, like the brothers, deceive ourselves, avoiding ‘the truths we know but dare not face’?

Sadly it’s never easy to revisit missed opportunities after the fact, to remedy past mistakes, to make up for lost time. As Victor’s wife Esther observes:

‘All these years we’ve been saying, once we get the pension we’re going to start to live… It’s like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens… and we stand there.’

 
'When love breaks down,
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you.
When love breaks down,
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves.’

Prefab Sprout, 'When Love Breaks Down' (P McAloon)

No. 222

Bad Timing: It’s Not Enough to Be Right, You Need to Be Right at the Right Time

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

‘If you’re thinking of reforming me, you might as well save yourself the trouble.’

In the 1932 movie ‘Shanghai Express’ an eccentric crew are thrown together in the First Class carriage of a train travelling through civil war torn China. They include an English missionary, a French veteran, an American gambler, a German opium dealer and a Chinese spy. 

Marlene Dietrich plays the elegant and enigmatic Shanghai Lily. She discovers that a rather reserved British army doctor, Captain Harvey, is a fellow passenger. Five years earlier they were in a relationship, but they separated when she tested his faith in her.

‘I wanted to be certain that you loved me. Instead I lost you.’

Lily has since adopted the life of a courtesan.

'It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.'

It becomes clear that Lily and Harvey still carry a torch for one another. Will they be able to rekindle their romance despite everything that has happened?

Director Josef von Sternberg uses ‘Shanghai Express’ as a vehicle for Dietrich’s extraordinary beauty. He employs a raft of lighting techniques and costume choices to draw our gaze.

We see Dietrich in the dark, in torchlight, emerging from the shadows; Dietrich behind a lace veil, in a feathered cap, her face framed by fur. There’s Dietrich in a long silk dress, in a chain-mesh collar, in a kimono; Dietrich with a blonde bob, backlit. Big eyes, hooded lids, hypnotic gaze. Dietrich walks through steam, peers through glass. She smokes a cigarette. We are fascinated by her angular cheekbones, her elegantly trimmed eyebrows, her sad sombre voice. Dietrich in jewels, in the Captain’s hat, in tears, in prayer. 

As the train makes its way across China the two former lovers confront each other. Harvey professes his enduring commitment to her. Lily is confused.

'When I needed your faith, you withheld it. And now, when I don't need it, and don't deserve it, you give it to me.'

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

Lily’s frustration will resonate with many people watching. Bad timing has arrested many budding romances before they can blossom. Bad timing can cool passion, frustrate affection, dampen enthusiasm. The moment passes, the opportunity evaporates, circumstances change. If only things had been different…

It’s true of business too.

Looking back over my years in advertising I can recall sound appointments that failed for being premature or belated; promising careers that floundered because engagement was misaligned; robust initiatives that ran aground for being ahead of their time or behind the times. Too late into digital, too early into content, too soon with media planning… 

Arrive before there’s Client appetite or commercial need and you’ll not be properly appreciated. Come too late and you’ll miss the boat. It’s not enough to be right. You need to be right at the right time.

As the Shanghai Express progresses across China, it is hijacked by rebel soldiers. Lily saves her former lover’s life, but he once again misinterprets events. 

Dietrich turns the light out and is alone with a cigarette. 

Finally, to everyone’s relief, Harvey sees sense. He catches up with Lily on a crowded Shanghai Station platform.

‘There’s only one thing I want to tell you… How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you with all these people around?’

'Now what am I supposed to do,
When I want you in my world?
How can I want you for myself,
When I'm already someone’s girl?

I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
No hard feelings.
I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
I'm gonna be there.'

Erykah Badu, 'Next Lifetime'

No. 221

The Quiet Achiever: Learning Lessons from RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast 1993

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast 1993

'I am a Brooklynite, born and bred, a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. What has become of me could happen only in America. Neither of my parents had the means to attend college, but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in.' 
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I recently watched an excellent documentary about US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (‘RBG’). It’s the story of an incredibly talented, resilient woman who overcame the odds, step-by-step, to help build a secure legal framework for women’s equality in the US.

Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in a working-class neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and earned the family nickname Kiki for being a ‘kicky baby.’ She was encouraged to take her education seriously by her beloved mother, who passed away just as she finished high school. She studied government at Cornell and married fellow student Martin Ginsburg a month after graduating. They had their first child in 1955, and subsequently both enrolled at Harvard Law School.

Soon, however, Martin contracted testicular cancer. Ruth found herself caring for her young daughter and convalescing husband, attending both his classes and her own. 

This was challenging enough. But at Harvard Ruth also had to endure a hostile, male-dominated, environment. There were only eight other women in her class of more than 500, and on joining they were admonished by the Dean for taking the places of men.
 
When in time Martin recovered and graduated, the couple moved to New York so that he could take up a job as a tax lawyer. Ruth completed her degree at Columbia Law School, and was the first woman to be a member of both the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews. In 1959 she graduated joint-first in class. And yet, when she went looking for work, she didn’t receive one job offer from a New York law firm.

'I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.'

Ruth settled for a career in academic law, teaching at Rutgers University Law School and at Columbia. At Rutgers she was informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. 

No surprise perhaps that Ruth gravitated towards the study and teaching of women’s rights. In most states at that time you could be fired for being pregnant; banks required a woman applying for credit to have their husband co-sign; marital rape was rarely prosecuted. Indeed hundreds of separate statutes across the country discriminated on the basis of sex.

‘The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal but in a cage.’

In 1972 Ruth co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  Rather than seeking to end all gender discrimination at once, she determined to take it on one law at a time. As Director of the ACLU she challenged laws giving different access to housing benefits to male and female service members; different survivor benefits to men and women; different minimum drinking ages for men and women. She challenged a law enabling women to opt out of jury service. And more besides.

Methodical, precise, considered, Ruth gradually chipped away at the edifice of sex discrimination. She concentrated on winnable cases. Sometimes she represented male plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination harmed both men and women. She referred to gender rather than sex so as not to distract male judges.

‘I knew that I was speaking to men who didn’t think there was such a thing as gender discrimination. And my job was to tell them that it really exists.’

Between 1973 and 1976 Ruth argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. This was a step-by-step revolution.

‘This opinion does mark as presumptively invalid a law that denies to women equal opportunity to inspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on what they do.’

In the documentary Ruth’s children bear witness to her phenomenal stamina throughout this period. Sustained by coffee and prunes, she worked into the early hours every night, and was at court by 9-00 the next morning. At the weekend she slept.

Beyond working incredibly hard to achieve one’s goals, there are a number of lessons we can learn from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She teaches us to be clinical and cool headed in the design and execution of strategy; to pick our battles; to fight them in the right order; and to be sure of winning. That way we will win the war.

I was particularly struck by Ruth’s working method. She was not a militant firebrand, given to marching and demonstrating. Rather she was serious and soft-spoken, cautious and careful, reserved and restrained. Her colleagues report that she didn’t do small-talk. She just focused on getting the job done.

'When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.'

Ruth Bader Ginsburg At work

Ruth Bader Ginsburg At work

Ask yourself this: Do you have an RBG in your office? Sitting silently, working diligently. Meticulous and methodical. Shy and self-effacing. The quiet achiever, the unsung hero.

What if she or he is being shouted down, pushed aside, managed and marginalised? What if the conversation is being dominated by the most vocal rather than the best qualified people in the room? Are you doing enough to ensure that the quiet achiever can still be heard?

'We have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world, and it starts out with three words, 'We, the people.''

In 1980 Ruth Bader Ginsberg was appointed to the US Court of Appeals, and in 1993 she became the second woman Justice on the US Supreme Court. In recent years, with liberal Justices in the minority, she has often been a dissenting voice.

Sadly Martin Ginsburg died of cancer in 2010. He and Ruth had been married for 56 years. In December 2018 Ruth, already a two-time survivor of cancer herself, underwent surgery for lung cancer. She was back on the Supreme Court bench eight weeks later. She has recently turned eighty-six.

Just over five feet tall; hair neatly tied back with a scrunchie; serious glasses; vintage earrings; silk shirt and scarf. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is asked how long she can keep going. With lips pursed, she pauses for thought.

‘I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam, and when I can’t that will be the time I will step down.’

Full steam ahead, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

No. 220