Interesting v Important: How to Deceive Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o  The Arts Desk

Basil Rathbone (left) as Sherlock Holmes, with Ida Lupino and Nigel Bruce c/o The Arts Desk

‘My whole success depends upon a peculiarity of Holmes’ brain – its perpetual restlessness, its constant struggle to escape boredom.’
Professor Moriarty, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

Of course, the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes was provided by Basil Rathbone, who starred as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective in a series of fourteen films between 1939 and 1946.

Tall, thin, angular and aristocratic, with an aquiline nose, Rathbone was once described as 'two profiles pasted together.' For the role of Holmes he donned a tweed deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, smoked a calabash pipe and pursued a cold deductive logic.

Holmes was assisted by his trusty companion, Watson - brilliantly played by Nigel Bruce as a bumbling, pompous but well-meaning fool. Together they navigated perplexing puzzles, pedestrian policing, suspects with dubious motives and nefarious villains. It was a world of red herrings, MacGuffins, false endings and parallel intertwined plots.

1939’s ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ begins with Holmes’ arch-enemy Professor Moriarty escaping a court conviction. Moriarty, sharing a taxi back from the trial with a frustrated Holmes, vows to commit a sensational crime, and to discredit Holmes in the process.

'I'm going to break you, Holmes. I'm going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you'll never suspect it until it's too late. That will be the end of you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.' 

Subsequently we learn that Moriarty plans to distract Holmes from a really serious felony by setting him a more intricate and intriguing puzzle.

‘He’s like a spoiled child who picks watches to pieces, but loses interest in one toy as soon as he’s given another. So I’m presenting the ingenious but fickle Mr Holmes with two toys… I’ll give him a toy to delight his heart, so full of bizarre complications that he’ll forget all about the first toy.’

And so we embark on a plot that involves a damsel in distress, a chinchilla charm and a cryptic drawing of a man with an albatross round his neck. There’s also a club-footed criminal leaving marks in the ground and a murderous flute-playing gaucho on the prowl.

While Holmes concerns himself with solving this absorbing riddle, he disregards a routine request to protect the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

This storyline resonated with me. Many’s the time in business that we find ourselves chasing the small but seductive, in preference to the boring but important. We readily tire of the familiar and frustrating aspects of incumbent accounts, the tedious day-to-day annoyances. We find ourselves instinctively drawn to the shiny and new, the challenging and thought provoking; to the prospect of developing fresh solutions and pioneering relationships. We channel time and resource into the thrilling pitch and the cool account, while leaving the big corporate Clients unloved and under-resourced. We prioritise the interesting ahead of the important.

220px-The_Adventures_of_Sherlock_Holmes_-_1939-_Poster.png

Of course, creative opportunities can translate into profile-building campaigns and successful brands. ‘Great oaks from mighty acorns grow.’ But there is a balance to be struck. Smart Agency leaders know how to direct the enthusiasms of their teams across a variety of tasks, satisfying their natural appetite for stimulation and provocation, while at the same time addressing the commercial imperative. Indeed the truest test of a great Agency is its ability to find creative and compelling solutions to big, intractable corporate problems.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ concludes with a victorious Holmes saying ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ It was the first use of a phrase that did not appear in Conan Doyle’s original canon of Holmes stories.

‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was the second Rathbone-Bruce movie produced by 20th Century Fox, and more were planned. However, with the onset of the Second World War, the studio became concerned that dramas set in the Victorian era would be less relevant. Surely thrillers featuring foreign agents and spies would make for better box office. And so they determined to shelve any future Holmes pictures.

Universal Studios took a different view. They stepped in, negotiated the rights with the Conan Doyle Estate, signed contracts with Rathbone and Bruce, and updated the stories to contemporary settings. This enabled Sherlock Holmes to take on the Nazis and the studio to make twelve more films.

‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’


'My mind's distracted and diffused.
My thoughts are many miles away.
They lie with you when you're asleep,
And kiss you when you start your day.’

Simon & Garfunkel,'Kathy’s Song' (P Simon)

 

No. 238

 

 

Lee Krasner: Listening To Your Inner Rhythm

Lee Krasner,  The Eye is the First Circle is

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circleis

‘I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.’
Lee Krasner

I recently attended an exhibition of the American abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner (‘Living Colour’ at the Barbican, London, until 1 September).

Krasner was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to Jewish parents from the Ukraine. There were no artists in her family, but at 14 she determined that she wanted to become a painter, applying to the only school in New York that offered an art major for girls. She went on to learn classical drawing techniques at the National Academy of Design and cubism at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.

Early in her career Krasner created murals for public buildings and during the war she designed collages for the windows of New York department stores. She became part of the vibrant New York art scene, hanging out with fellow abstract painters like de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Still.

On meeting one of her heroes, Piet Mondrian, Krasner discovered he was a fellow jazz fan and took him dancing at a Greenwich Village nightclub. Mondrian was impressed by her work, saying it had ‘a very strong inner rhythm.’ This thought must have resonated with Krasner, as she subsequently spoke of her art in similar terms.

‘I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything… I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way. I have regards for the inner voice.’

Krasner’s inner rhythm took her on an extraordinary creative journey.

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

In 1945 she married another talented artist on the New York scene, Jackson Pollack, and together they moved to a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island. She responded to the vibrant blossoms of her new surroundings by producing bright colourful abstractions, canvases and mosaics that teemed with life. She painted these ‘Little Images' in her small studio space in an upstairs bedroom. The constraint gave her work a compelling intensity.

When in the early ‘50s Krasner ran out of inspiration, she found herself ripping up the black-and-white drawings that were pinned to her studio walls. Returning a few weeks later, she decided that the torn debris looked interesting, and so embarked on a series of ‘collage paintings’ that incorporated the shredded drawings along with torn canvases and newspapers.

'I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.'

After Pollack died in a car accident in 1956, Krasner took over his larger studio in the barn at Springs. Scale produced a new freedom. Suffering from insomnia, she worked through the night, and as she was reluctant to use colour in unnatural light, she turned to raw and burnt umber. She created her ‘Night Journeys’ series, huge canvases, with fluid, swirling, mournful organic patterns, pulsing with emotion. 

In the early ‘60s Krasner welcomed colour back to her work, employing bright crimson, exuberant yellows, vivid blues and greens. Her ‘Primary Series’ was full of boundless energy, suggestive of exotic flowers and oriental calligraphy.

Krasner did indeed have a strong inner rhythm. She had a remarkable ability to respond to that rhythm with total commitment, following it wherever it took her. She endeavoured to merge the organic with the abstract, the material with the spiritual. She gave us pure emotion, unedited and unfiltered, dynamic and ever changing.

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Krasner teaches us a number of lessons.

1. Follow Your Instincts

‘I insist on letting it go the way it’s going to go rather than forcing it.’

Looking at Krasner’s paintings and listening to her talk on film, we realise that so often in life we over-ride our natural, instinctive feelings. She made a conscious effort to follow her impulses, to go with the flow.

2. Get Stuck In 

‘You just take a deep breath and hope for the best and get into it. And sometimes it comes through miraculously.’

Krasner comes across as a practical person. We often hesitate because we have not entirely thought through an idea. She believed that if you get stuck in, your instincts will take over. 

3. Embrace Change

‘I have never been able to understand the artist whose image never changes.’

Many artists seem to be in search of a consistent approach or signature style. Krasner actively embraced change, as a fundamental part of her identity. If she felt she was stuck in a rut, she would change the medium she was working in, change the context, change the materials.

‘I think every once in a while I feel the need to break my medium... If I have been doing a very large painting, I like to drop into something in small scale. It is a challenge to go into this size. It is just to hold my own interest, and then each media has its own conditions.’

4. Revisit Your Past

‘I am never free of the past. I believe in continuity.’

Having cannibalised her past in order to revitalise her present once in the mid-‘50s, Krasner did it again in the mid-‘70s. Coming across an old portfolio of her drawings from the Hofmann School, this time she set about cutting not tearing, arranging the angular shapes into dynamic patterns on the canvas, creating images that explode with shards of electricity.

Most artists would claim never to look back. Others preserve their past with reverence. Krasner demonstrated that your creative history can be a source of fresh inspiration.

‘This seems to be a work process of mine. I’m constantly going back to something I did earlier, remaking it, doing something else with it, and coming forth with another more clarified image possibly.’

5. Be Resilient

‘This student is always a bother… insists upon having own way, despite school rules.’
National Academy of Design Report Card

From an early age Krasner was strong willed and independent spirited. She had to be to navigate the sexism of the art world in her era. On one occasion her tutor Hans Hofmann, renowned for his harsh criticism, finally offered her a compliment:

'This is so good that you would not know it was done by a woman’. 

Krasner subsequently spent a lifetime fielding questions about her husband. In one interview she was asked: ‘What was Pollack working on during that period?’

‘I don’t know. I had my own problems.’

I left the Barbican admiring the artist as much as her art. Lee Krasner was certainly tough and serious minded. But she communicated a tremendous intimacy, opening a window to her soul. She didn’t receive the credit she was due in her day. It’s good to see the art establishment making amends.

‘Don’t tamper with that, don’t will it, don’t force it. Let it come through in its own terms.’

'Breathe to the rhythm,
Dance to the rhythm,
Work to the rhythm,
Live to the rhythm,
Love to the rhythm,
Slave to the rhythm.’

Grace Jones, ’Slave to the Rhythm’ (B Woolley/ S Darlow/ S Lipson /T Horn)

 

No. 237

‘Do It First, Do It Yourself, and Keep on Doing It’: A Leadership Lesson from Scarface

Scarface

Scarface

‘Anything he starts, we’ll finish.’
Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte

The 1932 gangster classic ‘Scarface’ stars Paul Muni as Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte.

Though poorly educated, Camonte is charismatic, industrious and dedicated. He works his way up through the ranks of the Chicago mob during the Prohibition era, extorting money from saloons and terrorizing bar owners. He has a passion for violence, success and power, ruthlessly pursuing his objectives with little regard for the law or human life. His progress is achieved by savage assaults, brutal murders, drive-by shootings and the liberal use of pineapple bombs.

Mid-way through the drama Camonte celebrates the arrival on his turf of the Tommy Gun, sometimes nicknamed ’the Chicago typewriter.’

'There's only one thing that gets orders and gives orders. And this is it… It's a typewriter. I'm gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters!’

Director Howard Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht were clearly both fascinated and repelled by the amorality of the mob. Camonte is no two-dimensional villain. He has charm and style. He commands loyalty from his colleagues and is protective of his family. With growing success, he develops a taste for fine living and takes a shine to his employer’s girlfriend, Poppy. She, however, is initially sceptical of both his advances and his expensive tailoring.

Poppy: 'Kind of gaudy, isn't it?'
Tony Camonte: 'Ain't it though? Glad you like it.’

For all his obvious shortcomings, I was quite struck by Camonte’s personal business mantra:

'Listen, Little Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.'

Camonte is a driven man. His gangster bosses, with time and achievement, get complacent and comfortable, and set limits to their ambition. But, regardless of his wealth and accomplishments, Camonte stays actively involved in the brutality and bloodshed. He maintains an insatiable appetite for more. 

We’re all nowadays familiar with the commercial imperative of speed and agility; with the contemporary benefits of first mover advantage. But how committed are we to the concept of sustaining direct personal involvement as we progress through the ranks? How much do we subscribe to Camonte’s dictum to ‘do it yourself and keep on doing it’?

In my own experience people often see promotion as a licence to take their foot off the gas, to step back and empower. They have earned the right to withdraw from the front line; to marshal resources from 50,000 feet; to develop long-term plans and strategic visions; to mentor and train. They regard leadership as a hands-off task.

Of course, we need our most senior and experienced minds to be thinking about the future. And a primary responsibility of leadership is to equip teams with capabilities and confidence so that that they can do the job themselves. But at the same time, if you want to retain a cutting edge, to stay abreast of change, to remain relevant, you have to sustain active involvement with Clients, consumers, brands and business. However tempting it is to coach from the sidelines, you have to stay match-fit.

I once approached my boss Simon Sherwood with a proposal to take a broader, more strategic role in the Agency. I’d had my fill of troublesome Clients and tiresome pitches. I wanted to apply myself to more cerebral activity.

Simon, sitting at a desk that was empty but for a small stack of yachting magazines, leaned back in his Eames aluminium chair and regarded me with cool-eyed detachment:

‘Always remember, Jim, if you’re not facing income, you’re entirely expendable.’

I gave up on my proposal and returned to my desk.

 

'Can't fight corruption with con tricks.
They use the law to commit crime.
And I dread to think what the future will bring
When we're living in gangster time.
Don't call me Scarface.’

The Specials, ‘Gangsters' (Crispin Macmichael Sandys Hunt)

 

No. 236

 

 

‘The Idea and Taste Machine’: Inside the Mind of Stanley Kubrick

‘The Shining’

‘The Shining’

'If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.’
Stanley Kubrick

I recently attended an exhibition about the work of film director, Stanley Kubrick (The Design Museum, London, until 15 September 2019).

Born in 1928 to a Jewish family, Kubrick was raised in the Bronx, New York. His father was a doctor. He loved reading, playing chess, listening to jazz and watching the New York Yankees. He was intelligent, introverted, quiet and shy. He skipped school to see movies and achieved only moderate grades.

At the age of 13 Kubrick's father bought him a camera. He took to roaming the streets in search of interesting subjects and briefly attended evening classes. In 1946 he got a job as a photographer for Look magazine, and by the early 1950s he was making short films on modest budgets.

In 1956 Kubrick made his first major Hollywood movie, the classic film noir, ‘The Killing.’ He went on to direct a definitive anti-war movie, 'Paths of Glory.’ He shot the sword-and-sandals blockbuster, ‘Spartacus’. He addressed issues of sex and violence in 'Lolita' and 'A Clockwork Orange.’ And with 'Dr. Strangelove’ he found comedy in the threat of nuclear apocalypse. 

Kubrick was enormously versatile, leaping comfortably from one genre to the next. He created a seminal science fiction movie, '2001: A Space Odyssey'; a classic horror film, 'The Shining'; a definitive Vietnam War picture, 'Full Metal Jacket.' And he set new standards for aesthetic naturalism in the historical drama, 'Barry Lyndon.' 

'He is incapable of repeating a subject, as it would mean repeating himself.’
Film critic Alexander Walker (1971)

2001: A    Space    Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

At the exhibition we get a glimpse inside the mind of Kubrick. Through his lenses, cameras and dollies, his Steenbeck 6-plate 35mm editing table, we can appreciate his fascination with technology. Through his card index, numbered shooting schedules and exhaustive location shots, we understand he was a perfectionist with an eye for detail. Through his memoranda, letters and production notes, we comprehend his insistence on complete creative control. We see his scribbles, sketches and scripts, his props, faxes and call sheets. Everything is highlighted, annotated, underlined and colour coded. 

There’s a piece of writing paper that he was testing. At the top he has typed: ‘This is how it types.’ Below that in red script he has written: 'This is how it takes ink.'

Let’s consider the lessons that Kubrick suggests for people working in the creative industry.

1. Be inspired

Kubrick was well versed in the grammar of film and he read extensively for inspiration. He preferred to adapt a book rather than write an original screenplay.

There seems to be a theme running through his work: a concern with dehumanization, the struggle of the individual against the system – the state, the empire, the military machine; technology, convention and the evil within us all. 

'When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.'
Anthony Burgess, ‘A Clockwork Orange’

There are also strong consistencies of style: symmetrical compositions and one-point perspectives, extreme close-ups of distraught faces, voice-over narratives and pivotal bathroom scenes.

This is a film-maker with a strong vision of what he wants to create. And yet Kubrick was reluctant to decode his work and preferred that it should speak for itself. 

'There's something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas, and allegories.’

2. Be prepared

When Kubrick was 12, his father taught him chess. He played the game on set with his actors, and it featured in many of his films. 

'You sit at the [chess] board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it's really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.’ 

Script, soundtrack and set design; cast, costume and cameras. Everything Kubrick did was planned meticulously, plotted fastidiously. He calculated many moves in advance. 

After he had decamped to England in 1969 Kubrick was unwilling to travel. So for ‘Full Metal Jacket’, he transformed Beckton Gas Works in London into the Vietnamese city of Huế, using 200 living palm trees flown in from Spain and 100,000 plastic tropical plants from Hong Kong. 

3. Be equipped

Kubrick was always alert to the possibilities afforded by new technology.

For ‘2001’ he employed a Slitscan machine to create a psychedelic flow of colours. He commissioned a groundbreaking gravitation drum, a 12m-high wheel that created the impression of weightlessness. It took six months to build and cost more than £580,000.

For ‘Barry Lyndon’ Kubrick was determined to capture the atmosphere of eighteenth century paintings, and so for many of the indoor scenes he eschewed artificial light. He shot with triple wicked candles and employed a Zeiss f0.17 highspeed lens that had only recently been developed for NASA.

In ‘The Shining’ Kubrick used the newly invented Garrett Brown Steadicam to glide through the halls of the Overlook Hotel as if on ‘a magic carpet.’

4. Be in control

'One man writes a novel. One man writes a symphony. It is essential that one man make a film.’

Kubrick was frustrated by his experiences on the 1960 movie ‘Spartacus’ when he didn’t have full creative control. He had rows with the studio, his lead actor and the chief cinematographer. He vowed never to compromise again. 

More than any other modern film-maker Kubrick wrote, directed and edited his own material.

'Nothing is cut without me. I'm in there every second, and for all practical purposes I cut my own film. I mark every frame, select each segment, and have everything done exactly the way I want it.’

5. Collaborate

Despite his obsessive commitment to control, Kubrick worked with people he admired that could bring something unique to his films.

On the screenplay for ‘2001’ he collaborated with science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. Architect Arne Jacobsen designed the cutlery. Hardy Amies created the costumes.

He also worked extensively with costume designer Milena Canonero. He commissioned set designer Ken Adam to create Dr Strangelove’s War Room. And graphic artist Philip Castle designed the posters for 'A Clockwork Orange’ and 'Full Metal Jacket.’

And yet Kubrick’s tendency to micro-manage could extend to his collaborations. It is estimated that the legendary Saul Bass had to show Kubrick 300 different versions of the poster for ‘The Shining’ before the director was satisfied. 

6. Manage the mood

Kubrick didn’t regard music as a secondary or supportive element of film-making. For him it was a critical part of communication. 

‘Music is one of the most effective ways of preparing an audience and reinforcing points that you wish to impose. The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the filmmaker has at his disposal.’

And so Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ played over a ninety-second montage of nuclear explosions at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Strauss waltzes accompanied the docking sequence in ‘2001.’ And Wendy Carlos’ version of the thirteenth century Latin hymn ‘Dies Irae’ introduced us to ‘The Shining.’

On set Kubrick listened constantly to music until he discovered something he felt was right. For the duel scene in 'Barry Lyndon’ he sampled every available recording of seventeenth and eighteenth century compositions before he arrived at Handel’s Sarabande.

7. Edit ruthlessly

Kubrick reportedly exposed 1.3 million feet of film while shooting ‘The Shining’, the release print of which runs for 142 minutes. Thus his shooting ratio was over 100:1 when a ratio of 5 or 10:1 is considered the norm.

This didn’t trouble Kubrick. Indeed he regarded editing as absolutely critical to his creative process.

'When I'm editing, I'm only concerned with the questions of 'Is it good or bad?' 'Is it necessary?' 'Can I get rid of it ?' 'Does it work ?' I am never concerned with how much difficulty there was to shoot something, how much it cost, and so forth. I'm never troubled losing material. I cut everything to the bone. When you're shooting, you want to make sure you don't miss anything and you cover it as fully as time and budget allow. When you're editing, you want to get rid of everything that isn't essential.’

8. Leave space for magic

Kubrick was notorious for demanding multiple takes, often shooting up to fifty for any one scene. Shelley Duvall was asked to perform the baseball bat sequence in ‘The Shining’ 127 times. 

On the one hand this may be because he had a very precise idea of what he wanted. But it may also be because he was waiting for the indefinable magic of film.

‘You cannot go very far without the magic. Great performances come from the magical talent of the actor plus the ideas of the director.’

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Of course, Kubrick was a flawed genius. Sometimes his films seem somewhat emotionally cold. It’s hard to watch ‘Lolita’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ now. And I’m not sure there was ever a good time to see ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ 

Kubrick could also fall victim of his own fastidiousness. He spent years planning a film about Napoleon, accumulating 25,000 index cards, 18,000 photographs and countless books. But the studio was spooked by the failure at the box office of another Napoleon movie, and the project never came to fruition.

Nonetheless I left the Kubrick exhibition with a strong sense of what it takes to be a truly great director: the vision and passion; the research, plans and preparation; the robust sense of self and the enduring commitment to maintain authorial control.

Indeed Kubrick gave us a compelling definition of the role of a director in any creative enterprise:

‘A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions; and it’s the director’s job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible.'

No. 235

‘Sunshine on a Brush’: Can You Convey Happiness?

Joaquin Sorolla, Sewing the Sail (1896)

Joaquin Sorolla, Sewing the Sail (1896)

I recently attended a fine exhibition of the work of Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (The National Gallery, London, until 7 July).

Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla was orphaned at two. Raised by an aunt, who got him work as an assistant to a local photographer, he studied art in his hometown, and then in Madrid, Rome and Paris. He married the photographer’s daughter, Clotilde, and together they had three children.

Sorolla created portraits of his family, and of the great and the good. He addressed social concerns: the exploitation of workers, the effects of disease, the plight of a mother who had killed her child. He painted Spanish landscapes - the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the Alcazar in winter, Burgos Cathedral in the snow. He was commissioned to capture the rich variety of regional Spanish dress.

Joaquín Sorolla, Mother, 1895–1900

Joaquín Sorolla, Mother, 1895–1900

But Sorolla is best remembered for his paintings of sunlight and sea, of people at work and play around the beaches of Valencia and nearby Javea. The French critic Henri Rochefort observed: 'I do not know any brush that contains as much sun.' 

Sorolla liked to work outside. He set up his easel behind the protection of large parasols and windbreaks. By necessity he painted quickly, with confident sweeping brushstrokes. His style was free, spontaneous, natural. His art was colourful, vibrant, joyous.

A woman swathed from head to toe in fashionable linen adjusts her camera on a Biarritz beach. Toddlers paddle in the afternoon heat. A mother shields her son from the bright sunlight with a towel. A couple of boys strain to keep a boat under control, their image reflected in the dappled blue water. Three children sprint across the orange sand, beaming with glee. A lady holds her daughter’s hand as she steps carefully across the rocks. Four women take a siesta in the shaded grass. A skipping girl in a blue-striped dress casts a shadow by the pond in the garden. A mother tenderly regards her sleeping baby as they lie together in a big white bed.

I left the exhibition buoyed up by the sheer vitality of it all. I also reflected on the fact that we in the marketing and communications industry are in the business of selling happiness in one way or another. And yet sometimes we struggle to convey it with any naturalness or authenticity. Indeed we often resort to familiar clichés and tired stereotypes.

Sorolla teaches us that happiness can be captured in a simple gesture: a backward glance, a tilt of the head, a youthful leap. Happiness is a hand held on a park bench, a shimmering reflection in the summer heat. It is a neat white bonnet, a casually dropped parasol, red ribbons in a child’s hair. It is a brief moment in time, a fleeting memory, an echo.

Joaquín Sorolla, Walk On The Beach,  1909

Joaquín Sorolla, Walk On The Beach, 1909

As James Joyce once remarked:

‘In the particular is contained the universal.’ 

Success came easily to Sorolla. He was exhibited across Europe, in the United States, and as far away as Buenos Aires. He enjoyed commissions, honours and extensive travel. By 1900 he was considered the most famous of all living Spanish artists.

You can visit Sorolla’s rather splendid house in Madrid. It combines a well-lit, high-roofed studio space, with plush rooms for meeting clients, comfortable living quarters and a peaceful shaded garden. Clotilde is a constant presence, looking out at us with elegance and authority from portraits and family beach scenes. Theirs was a long and happy marriage. When travelling, Sorolla would write to her every day – often sending flowers inside the letters.

'All my love is focused on you. Despite my great love for our children, you are more, much more than them for so many reasons that there is no need to mention. You are my body, my life, my mind, my perpetual ideal.'

Sorolla’s general cheerfulness is at odds with what we have come to expect from the tortured artist. Perhaps someone who is supremely happy is better qualified to convey contentment. A lesson for us all.

In 1920 Sorolla suffered a stroke while painting in the garden. He died three years later. Soon after, his work fell out of fashion. His relaxed luminous naturalism was at odds with the more anxious, cerebral output of the avant-garde. It’s good to welcome him back to the bright sunshine.

 

'You're mine, you're mine, you're
Walking on sunshine.
I got to tell you that you're doing fine,
Walking on sunshine.’
Rockers Revenge, ‘Walking on Sunshine’ (E Grant)

No. 234

 

‘Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means’: Abram Games and the Craft of Poster Design

Abram Games/The Jewish Museum

'I wind the spring and the public, in looking at the poster, will have that spring released in its mind.' 
Abram Games

I recently visited a fascinating exhibition of the wartime work of graphic designer Abram Games. (‘The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games’, The National Army Museum in Chelsea, until 24 November 2019)

Abraham Gamse’s 1925 Lower 3A report was not very encouraging. He was 11 years old and had recently enrolled at Hackney Downs School. 

‘Work much too careless and untidy; lazy and indifferent.’

The report also mentioned that his drawing skills were weak. This seems a little harsh as Gamse went on to become one of the finest graphic designers of the twentieth century.

Estate of Abram Games

Estate of Abram Games

Gamse was born in Whitechapel in 1914, the son of a Jewish photographer and seamstress. His father anglicised the family name to Games in 1926. The young Games learned how to use an airbrush in his father’s photography studio. Having studied briefly at Saint Martin's School of Art, he worked for a while at a commercial design firm and attended night classes in life drawing. Soon he had established himself as a freelance poster artist. 

At the start of World War Two, Games was conscripted into the British Army, and in 1941 he was transferred to the Public Relations Department of the War Office. 

‘There is no propaganda. I conceived them as instructional and training posters. It was a job that had to be done, like cleaning the floors and keeping your rifle clean.’

Many of Games’ wartime posters addressed necessary but prosaic tasks. They warned of the safety risks relating to indiscretion and live ammunition (‘Talk kills.’ ‘Damp ruins ammunition.’). They prompted servicemen to ventilate their quarters, brush their teeth and keep their feet clean. They recruited women for the Auxiliary Territorial Service and troops for the Airborne Divisions. And they urged the public to economise, contribute money, give blood, grow their own food and knit socks for jungle fighters.

Games’ posters also sought to encourage and inspire British troops: this was a war worth fighting and there were better times ahead; clean modern schools, hospitals and housing would rise up from the rubble; you could sign on for an army education scheme to prepare for a return to civvy street. Towards the end of the war Games designed some compelling posters seeking aid for displaced Jews.

Working in a protective smock that his mother had made for him, Games combined strong silhouettes, geometric shapes, stylised illustration and photographic images. He had been inspired by the Surrealist movement, and he magically turned a ship’s hull into a shovel, a mosquito into a death mask, the Houses of Parliament into a hand poised over a ballot paper (‘Serve as a soldier, vote as a citizen.’). A master of the airbrush, he tended to use just four bold colours. He reduced verbal messaging to a minimum, integrating succinct, authoritative type with his eye-catching imagery. 

‘I am not an artist, I am a graphic thinker.’

Games’ posters elegantly illustrated cause and effect, before and after, risk and reward. Sometimes they simply celebrated an aspiration or stated the raw facts. Often they used humour. He was clearly passionate about his chosen medium and his work provided a master class in poster communication. 

‘They are after all but printed paper, transient and impermanent. But if they convey to you the message I have been asked to transmit, they may succeed in living a while longer in your minds, and surely that is the job of the poster. If they do that then I shall be deeply satisfied.’

Games recognised that the craft of poster design is all about sacrifice and reduction, concentration and precision. It requires that you compress, condense and clarify. He would first produce an image in thumbnail to test whether his idea could communicate at distance. His motto was ‘Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means.’

‘To get it down to its simplicity, so that it talked from 50 yards, that was the difficulty.’

Screenshot 2019-06-05 at 17.34.24.png

Games also understood that successful poster communication requires imagination as much as distillation.

‘An idea has to be implanted in the audience, but it has to be implanted imaginatively, in such a way as to fire the interest and kindle a response to new thinking.’

Critically, he believed that you need to earn people’s immediate attention and enduring recollection. Great posters must involve the viewer.

‘I want to involve the mind as well as the eye of the viewer in my work. I want them to think, because what they are seeing is intriguing. Once you can get them to look at it, that’s fine, they are co-operating and the design is doing its job.’

Having served as an infantry private, Games was keen to bring colour and vibrancy to the barrack room’s creosote-covered brown wooden walls. As a committed socialist, he believed that posters had a civic function. 

‘The hoarding is ‘the art gallery of the man in the street.’ Posters should be selected like pictures in a gallery.’

After the war Games worked for commercial clients like Shell, the FT, Guinness, British Airways and London Transport. As well as posters, he designed stamps, book jackets and logos, including the emblem for the 1951 Festival of Britain. He died in 1996. 

It seems to me that Games’ principles are as relevant today as they ever were. He teaches us to think hard about the mechanics of the medium we’re employing; to be clear and concise, so that the message can be understood at distance and at speed; and to be insightful and imaginative, so that viewers are inclined to digest and retain that message.

Most of all I was struck by Games’ social conscience. So often nowadays communication pollutes the environment. He demonstrates that it can enrich it.

No. 232 

The Enchanted Brand: What Can Magic Teach Marketing?

German magician Jacoby-Harms in an 1866 photograph by FA Dahlstrom using double exposure to create the illusion of objects floating in the air

German magician Jacoby-Harms in an 1866 photograph by FA Dahlstrom using double exposure to create the illusion of objects floating in the air

‘Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.’
Karl Germain, Magician (1878-1959)

I recently attended an excellent exhibition about the psychology of magic (’Smoke and Mirrors’ at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 15 September), and read a fine accompanying book (The Spectacle of Illusion’ by Matthew L Tompkins).

Spiritualism gripped nineteenth and early twentieth century society. Celebrated mesmerists could manipulate magnetic life forces. Hypnotists could put people in a trance. Mediums could make the dead speak. Ghostly presences would rap out messages via dedicated wands. They would speak through spirit trumpets, write on slates, ring bells and play musical instruments. They made furniture float, supernatural limbs appear and ectoplasm ooze from random orifices.

The public fascination with the paranormal was enhanced by the ubiquity of disease and the escalating numbers of casualties created by modern warfare. Many attended séances in the hope of making contact with departed loved ones. Ouija boards became a popular parlour activity.

Spiritualism also spread to the new technology of photography. Deceased relatives appeared as ghostly presences on photographic slides. Mysterious body parts were observed alongside sitters. Phantoms could be seen haunting medieval churches and stately homes.

Commercial magicians, alert to the phenomenon, adopted and adapted the techniques of spiritualism and created hugely successful stage acts. Posters proclaimed that Mrs Daffodil Downey would perform public séances at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly; Harry Keller would make Princess Karnac levitate; and the automaton Psycho would play whist with audience members.

Inevitably scientists were keen to establish whether spiritualists were genuine, and in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was set up specifically to examine the area. They constructed dedicated laboratories, designed special apparatus and organised complex experiments.

Often results were inconclusive, and expert opinion was divided. Some respected figures remained convinced of spiritualism’s authenticity.

‘The author has seen numerous photographs of the ectoplasmic flow from ’Margery’ [the medium Mina Crandon] and has no hesitation in saying that it is genuine.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1926

The problem for the more sceptical scientists was that their measurements and machines were often outwitted by the spiritualists’ tricks and techniques.

‘While scientists are trained in gathering evidence based on empirical observations, they are not necessarily trained in deception.’
Matthew L Tompkins, ‘The Spectacle of Illusion’

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Consequently the scientists turned to commercial magicians for help. Magicians could draw on their knowledge of conjuring tricks and illusions to test the claims of the mediums and debunk the fraudulent. In one celebrated incident magician Harry Houdini prevented the medium Mina Crandon from collecting a reward by exposing her deceptions. It was an early success for interdisciplinary research.

‘[Spiritualism’s] worst evil has been the fostering of the unscientific spirit, the attempting to seek truth through the emotions rather than through the intellect.’
George Beard, Neurologist, 1879

What are we to make of the spiritualist phenomenon?

Well, it may all seem like distant history. But despite the advances of science since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there remain huge gaps in most people’s understanding of the physical world; and like our forefathers we tend to fill these gaps with assumptions and suppositions. We may insist that we are rational beings. But we are prone to believe what we feel, what we want, what we hope. And our senses are still not as reliable as we might imagine.

As marketers and communicators we should be ever mindful of the emotional component of decision-making. Indeed we should embrace the potential of the Enchanted Brand: a brand that beguiles, bewitches, charms and inspires; that is comfortable filling the space between the real and the imaginary.

We should also, like the sceptical scientists before us, learn to enlist expert witnesses from other disciplines to illuminate a category we do not fully understand.

There’s a compelling section of the exhibition that explains how the most important skill a magician has to learn is misdirection: drawing attention to one thing so that we are unaware of something else.

‘This idea of the hand being faster than the eye is completely wrong…Speed has nothing to do with it. It’s all attention control.’
Professor Ron Rensink, University of British Columbia, 2009

In a demonstration of ‘misdirection of perception’ (set up by psychologists from Goldsmiths, University of London), we watch a conjuror perform a trick with the trace from an eye tracker superimposed on the film. We see that the viewer’s gaze consistently fixes on the spot the magician wants, rather than the area where the deception is taking place. In a second demonstration, we see a conjuror employing ‘misdirection of memory’: we are encouraged to remember one card in a hand, and in so doing we fail to remember the others. Another demonstration illustrates ‘misdirection of reasoning’: we project from repeated similar experiences that that same experience will happen again, and therefore we imagine events that in fact never occur.

Of course, in the marketing and communications industry we would not subscribe to misdirection as a technique. We are, on the contrary, seeking to reveal truth and enhance it. However, in order to achieve enhanced truth, we often have to focus consumers’ minds. Indeed a strong brand actively endeavours to direct attention, reasoning and memory. It channels attention towards its greatest virtues; it establishes a narrative about its past that supports and sustains those virtues; it creates expectations of the future that become self-fulfilling. There are strong parallels between the disciplines.

There is one compelling theme that runs throughout the exhibition. Consistently we discover that believers are more open to suggestion than sceptics. They are more eager to please, more keen to have their convictions confirmed.

‘As a magician, I was able to see two things very clearly: a) how people can be fooled, and b) how they fooled themselves…The second is far more important.’
James Randi, Magician, 2007

Whilst not seeking to fool consumers, surely a primary responsibility of marketing is to build belief: to create a positive predisposition towards a brand such that claims are more favourably received and criticisms are more immediately rejected. Positive predisposition creates the context for a successful sale.

In a 1944 performance ‘the Amazing Dunninger, the Greatest Mental Marvel of the Age’ began with an announcement:

’I cannot invade against opposition. You must want me to get into your thoughts before I can. Do you want me in there?’

'If you believe in magic, come along with me.
We'll dance until morning 'til there's just you and me.
And maybe, if the music is right,
I'll meet you tomorrow, sort of late at night.
And we'll go dancing, baby, then you'll see,
How the magic's in the music and the music's in me.'

The Lovin’ Spoonful, 'Do You Believe in Magic' (John Sebastian)

No. 231

The Zero-Sum Game: Are Life and Love Played Out on a Balance Sheet?

Portrait of Strindberg by Edvard Munch, 1892

Portrait of Strindberg by Edvard Munch, 1892

‘They sense someone watching them – a creditor has come to call, the spectre of their guilt.’
Gustaf, ‘Creditors’

I recently saw a fine production of August Strindberg’s 1889 play ‘Creditors.’ (Jermyn Street Theatre, London, until 1 June)

Young artist Adolf is deeply in love with his new wife, successful novelist Tekla. Adolf is introverted, impressionable, prone to paranoia and illness. Tekla is confident, free-spirited and outgoing.

‘I don’t ‘know’ anything. I simply feel.’

While Tekla is away on a trip, Adolf meets a suave stranger who, Iago-like, pours poison into his ears: Is Tekla too flighty? Can she really be trusted? Did she exploit Adolf’s patronage to start her career?

‘You do know what this is – cannibalism! Savages eat their enemies to assimilate their virtues! This woman’s eaten your courage, your knowledge, your soul.’

Adolf is easily convinced.

‘A man’s love is all about giving, a woman’s love is all about taking! And I’ve given and given and given.’

When Tekla returns, inevitably she and Adolf have a row. He pursues the thought that somehow she owes him for her success.

‘I was desperate to remind you of your debt to me. I became the kind of vile creditor you want to keep far away from.’

Then Tekla’s first husband, Gustaf, arrives on the scene. On encountering Tekla, he suggests their relationship may not be quite over.

‘You’re still mine. There’s a marriage debt.’

Throughout ‘Creditors’ Strindberg explores the idea that romantic attachment is a matter of winners and losers, creditors and debtors; an engagement played out on a balance sheet. He implies that love is a zero-sum game: a relationship where each partner's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other partner.

Is this sincerely held cynicism on Strindberg’s part? Is it just a vehicle for his misogyny? Or is it a provocation to make us think?

Certainly the central theme of ‘Creditors’ can strike audiences as somewhat perverse. Of course, relationships entail a good deal of compromise and concession, of give-and-take and trade-offs. But surely love is a matter of mutual benefit, common goals and shared growth. Surely love is beyond accountancy.

And yet we often approach other areas of life as if they are a zero-sum game.

Many people regard business as an enterprise in which the total gains and losses of the participants will always add up to zero. Markets are fought over as if the sales success for one brand inevitably entails an equal and opposite decline for another. Negotiations are conducted as if one party can only prosper at the expense of the other. Careers are plotted as if colleagues are rivals in a contest.

Of course, commerce revolves around competition. And there are indeed winners and losers. But it’s not really that simple.

In business as in love, playing the zero-sum game is counterproductive. It precludes partnership and team-work, collaboration and alliance, deals and bargains. It denies the opportunity for innovation and change, for premiumisation and category growth. It turns participants in on themselves; makes them secretive and suspicious, self-seeking and aggressive.

Success in the modern world is more often achieved by seeking mutual gain, not mutual destruction. And progressive businesses increasingly concern themselves with value creation and interdependence, with finding solutions where all parties can profit. 1+ 1 can equal 3.

So don’t pursue zero-sum thinking, in life, love or business. It’s a trap.

I suspect Strindberg would not agree. Things don’t end well for Tekla and Adolf. And Gustaf rejoices at their pain.

‘Your creditors get you in the end… Innocent in the eyes of the Lord maybe, but accountable to men and women.’

 

'I've played all my cards
And that's what you've done too.
Nothing more to say.
No more ace to play.

The winner takes it all.
The loser has to fall.
It's simple and it's plain.
Why should I complain?’

Abba, ‘The Winner Takes It All’  (B Ulvaeus, B Andersson)

 

No. 230

‘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