Bonnard: Liberating Oneself from the Literal

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

‘I leave it…I come back…I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.’
Pierre Bonnard

I recently visited an exhibition of the work of French Post-Impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard (Tate Modern, London until 6 May).

The table is laid with a red gingham cloth. There is fruit, a water jug, a coffee pot. The dog perches. We see a vase of flowers, a bowl of lemons, of peaches, a notebook and pen. Amber walls. Summer heat. The door to the garden is open. A lush lavender landscape reaches out to us across that table, through the French windows.  A sun-drenched vista of greens and yellows beckons beyond that open door. A vibrant exterior life viewed from a secluded interior.

A woman is observed in the mirror on the mantelpiece. Her head turned away, looking past us and through us. A woman absorbed in her grooming, scrubbing her neck, pinning her hair. A woman framed by a bathtub, illuminated by the brightly coloured tiles, distorted by the water. It is as if we have just walked into the room.

We are invited into the intimate domestic world of the artist and his wife, Marthe - a world of silent companionship, of lethargy and ennui. Marthe passes the time with coffee and private thought. She nibbles at fruit and talks to the dog. She escapes to her bath - ‘the only luxury she had ever longed for.’ Often unwell, she has been prescribed daily water treatments to soothe her.

Renowned for his sunny landscapes and vivid colours, Bonnard is sometimes described as a ‘painter of happiness.’ But he himself is not so sure:

‘He who sings is not always happy.’

Indeed Bonnard seems somewhat removed - a man withdrawn, observing his home and home-life from a distance, through a window or doorway, across a table; through bands of colour, layers of memory. Figures are like ghosts. They move in and out of focus, in and out of frame. Self-portraits seem anxious, mournful.

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'One always talks of surrendering to nature. There is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.'

Occasionally Bonnard employs photography, not as a record of actuality, but rather to bring to mind natural, informal poses; to suggest incidental occasions, snapshots of time.

Bonnard describes himself as ‘the last of the Impressionists’, and he does indeed paint impressions – recollections of lost moments, remembrance of things past. He works in the studio, from memory rather than from life. Taking months and sometimes years to complete a canvas, he lets his imagination recreate events; frees his intense pigments to dissolve into one another; allows colours to take over from objects, patterns to take over from people, ideas to take over from accurate representation.

‘The presence of the object…is a hindrance to the painter when he is painting. The point of departure for a painting being an idea.’

There is a lesson for us all here.

Of course, brands often have to reside in a real world of cold calculation and rational reflection. But the best brands can also abstract themselves from reality, liberate themselves from the literal. They inhabit a landscape of impressions, feelings, moods and colours; a place of emotional truth, of memories, dreams and desires; the world as we recall it, as we imagine it, as we want it to be.

Sometimes, like Bonnard, we need to learn to let go.

'So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.
Each night in dreams I see your face,
Memories time cannot erase.
Wide awake, and find you gone,
And I'm so blue, and all alone.
So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.’


Percy Sledge, ‘Just Out of Reach'  (Virgil "Pappy” Stewart)

No. 217

The Longest Kiss: Turning Constraints to Your Advantage


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Cary Grant enters a Rio hotel room with Ingrid Bergman. Bag down, gloves off, hat discarded on the chair. In silence. They walk out to the balcony, embrace and kiss. She sighs and they look into each other’s eyes.

‘It’s nice out here. Let’s not go out for dinner. Let’s stay in.’

Between tender kisses, they discuss the chicken she’s planning to cook for him. They’ll keep the washing-up to a minimum.

Bergman leans on Grant’s shoulder as he takes her back inside to make a phone call. They kiss again, and hold each other tight as he picks up a message from his hotel. He has to leave.

Bergman: ‘This is a very strange love affair.’
Grant: ‘Why?’
Bergman: ‘Maybe the fact that you don't love me.’

They make their way to the door, arm in arm, kiss goodbye and agree to meet later.
He slips away.

This scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1942 movie ‘Notorious’ was celebrated as ‘the longest kiss in the history of the movies’. It lasts just under three minutes, but is not in fact a single kiss. Rather it is a series of kisses interrupted by conversation, movement and action.

It’s a memorable scene because it seems so intimate, natural, real. We believe that Bergman and Grant are genuinely in love. When Hitchcock carefully choreographed the actors, he may well have been seeking to communicate unaffected romantic truth. But he was also keen not to fall foul of the Hays Production Code, which prohibited ‘scenes of passion’, and restricted any screen kiss to no more than three seconds.

Constraints focus the mind, demand our attention. They lay down the gauntlet; prompt our rebellious instincts; challenge us to think laterally, to circumvent the regulations, to sidestep the rules. And sometimes they produce truly memorable responses.

When one reflects on historic cigarette and alcohol advertising, it sometimes seems that they hit the creative heights because of, rather than despite, legal restrictions. Ads for the likes of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges verged on the surreal. And I well recall a poster for the Winston brand:

We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s a stuffed aardvark.’

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Necessity has been the mother of invention in many great communication campaigns. Sometimes the constraint is legislative. Levi’s ‘Swimmer’ (1992) featured a number of property owners signalling consent because the advertising authorities didn’t want to celebrate trespassing. Sometimes the constraint is practical – you simply don’t have much time or money. Consider most Madness videos. And sometimes the constraint can even be self-imposed. When Justin Moore was creating a six-minute film for Johnnie Walker, ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’ (2009), he insisted that it should be one continuous shot - no cuts, no editing.

When you see rules, restrictions and regulations, don’t skulk off complaining and feeling sorry for yourself. Embrace the constraints. Take up the challenge. See where the limitations take you. Even consider setting a restriction yourself. You may find that a boring guideline is more inspiring than a blank piece of paper.

As Orson Welles once observed:
'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’

Happy Valentine’s Day

No. 216

‘But I Ain’t Lost’: Values Can Help Us Navigate Change

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

'One thing about this town, it's always full of interesting strangers.’

The 1961 movie ‘The Misfits’ is a sad tale of lonely hearts, lost souls and the fading West.

Scripted by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, it stars Miller’s then wife Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman looking to start a new chapter. In Reno she encounters veteran cowboy Clark Gable and his tow-truck driving sidekick Eli Wallach. For a while they settle in Wallach’s unfinished house on the edge of the Nevada desert.

'That's what I can't get used to. Everything keeps changing.’

Gable has a wistful air. He’s a man out of time. He laments the passing of the old West and struggles to come to terms with modern life. Wallach mourns his wife who died in childbirth a year or so ago. It was for her that he was building the house. Monroe, scarred by previous relationships, seeks emotional truth and independence.

'If I'm going to be alone, I want to be by myself.’

They’re all misfits - trying to deal with the past, to find companionship, to define some relevance and purpose in the midst of progress and change. Having enlisted the help of rodeo rider Montgomery Clift, the men set about rounding up wild horses in the desert - a last taste of freedom and the autonomous life that is fast disappearing.

‘It's better than wages, ain’t it?’
‘Sure, anything's better than wages.’

‘The Misfits’ is a complex movie, a reflection on the rootless and displaced; on people left behind by progress, powerless to control their own lives.

At one stage Gable relates an anecdote which may provide a key to understanding the plot.

'Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? He sees this fella sittin' on his porch. So he says, "Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?" The fella says, "No." "Well, could you tell me how to get to the Post Office?" The fella says, "No." "Well, do you know how to get to the Railroad Station?" "No." "Boy," he says, "you sure don't know much, do ya?" The fella says, "No. But I ain't lost.”'

There may be a lesson for us all here.

In times of transformation and upheaval, all around us we see doubts and dilemmas. We chase fads and fashions. We pursue answers - new horizons and fresh certainties. It’s easy to get confused and disorientated.  If we can just retain a robust sense of who we are, an adherence to some core principles, then maybe we’ll not get lost. Values can help us navigate change.

'You know, sometimes when a person don't know what to do, the best thing is to just stand still.’

An air of melancholy hangs over ‘The Misfits’. It was a troubled production. Huston drank and gambled his way through the shoot. Miller had written the screenplay for Monroe, but their relationship deteriorated in the course of filming. He was constantly redrafting the script and her addictions led to delays. Clift too was fragile. Gable, who had clearly been unwell, died of a heart attack a few days after filming ended. He was just short of sixty. Monroe passed away a year and a half later. ‘The Misfits’ was her last film.

Writing about Monroe in his memoir many years later, Miller observed the following:

'Whatever Marilyn was, she was not indifferent; her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of death.  She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.' 

'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain.
Now you've decided to show me the same.
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.'

Wild Horses’, The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards / Mick Jagger)

No. 215

‘Mek Us Laugh’: Comedy Creates Culture


Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

'The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.’
Nicolas Chamfort, French C18th Writer

At the end of Oxford’s Trinity term we would adjourn to the river to drink Pimms and watch rowing in the warm Spring sunshine. Rowing may not be the most thrilling spectator sport, but back then there seemed to be something inherently sophisticated and carefree about just being there.

A mate took along her Northern Boyfriend who was in town for the weekend, and we determined to position ourselves at the start of the race.

The competing eights were aligned along the bank in tense concentration. Young muscular men sat expectantly in their boats, wearing college colours and fixed grimaces. A senior gentleman with a military moustache and brightly tailored blazer stood over a small starting cannon at the river’s edge.

All was seriousness and silence. All was anticipation.

Suddenly the Northern Boyfriend shouted at the top of his voice:

‘Come on then. Mek us laugh!’

The mood was punctured, the concentration shattered. Some fell about chuckling, others were unimpressed. We adjourned to another vantage point.

Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be engaged in something really rather important; we take ourselves a little too seriously; we adopt airs and graces. Sometimes we deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

'A good laugh is the best pesticide.'
Vladimir Nabokov

The workplace in particular can become a breeding ground for pomposity and pretension, affectation and arrogance; a realm for desktop despots and new age Napoleons. A well-timed anecdote or cutting quip can act as a corrective. Humour punctures pretence, puts things in perspective. Humour speaks truth to power.

'Jesters do oft prove prophets.'
Regan, ‘King Lear’

Over the years I found that wit and wisecracks were not just a valuable antidote to office arrogance. They were also essential ingredients in a thriving company culture. I would often sustain myself through a boring meeting by noting down the absurdities of business-speak. My erstwhile colleague Ben would amuse participants in lengthy management awaydays by compiling a Top 10 list of bons mots and malapropisms. Sarah would turn the air blue with imaginative profanity. Gwyn would draw on his armory of pitch-perfect impersonations. Nick would relate shaggy dog stories of domestic disaster.

Comedy binds teams together, expresses shared values and helps us recover from disappointment.

'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941)

Of course we need to beware of the ‘banter’ that excludes or marginalizes; that forces conformity and suppresses authenticity. We must recognize that some people aren’t natural storytellers.

'You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody's gone home.’
Irene (Carole Lombard), 'My Man Godfrey' (1936)

That qualification aside, I’d still maintain that a well articulated joke can express a company’s character and values better than any po-faced promise or purpose. Comedy can be a cohesive force, a statement of fellow feeling. Comedy creates culture.

Indeed I’m inclined to concur with WH Auden:

'Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.'

'Oh, I hear laughter in the rain,
Walking hand in hand with the one I love.
Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside.’

Neil Sedaka, ‘Laughter in the Rain’ (Neil Sedaka/ Phil Cody)

No. 214

‘I Made It All Up’: Bruce Springsteen and the Art of Invention

‘We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior.'

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

I recently watched ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ (Netflix), the film record of Bruce Springsteen’s 2017-18 residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York.

I’ve always been an admirer of Springsteen. As a youngster I fell for the romantic picture he painted of blue collar America. He sang about his family and friends, home and hometown; about cars and girls, escape and the open road; about dancing in the dark and racing in the streets; about broken promises, burnt out Chevrolets and the land of hope and dreams. He was a sentimental storyteller, a soulful troubadour. He was the future of rock’n’roll.

‘Springsteen on Broadway’ is not a conventional gig. The singer weaves stripped down versions of some of his more famous numbers around a spoken narrative about his life and career. For the most part he stands alone on stage, in dark jeans and t-shirt. Lean and tanned, face chiseled, eyes beaming, a smile never far from his lips, he commands our attention.

He explains what his hometown, Freehold, New Jersey, meant to him when he was growing up.

‘There was a place here. You could hear it, you could smell it. A place where people made lives, and where they worked and where they danced, and where they enjoyed small pleasures and played baseball, and suffered pain; where they had their hearts broken and where they made love, had kids; where they died and drank themselves drunk on spring nights; and where they did their very best, the best they could to hold off the demons outside and inside that sought to destroy them and their homes and their families and their town.' 

Springsteen speaks with a preacher’s zeal, testifying to the ties that bind. He prompts us to recall why we loved the United States in the first place; reaffirms the fundamental dignity of the working class; reminds us that masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic; restores our faith in the transformative power of rock’n’roll music.

‘The joyful, life-affirming, hip-shaking, ass-quaking, guitar-playing, mind and heart-changing, race-challenging, soul-lifting bliss of a freer existence… All you had to do to get a taste of it was to risk being your true self.’

Springsteen’s emotive themes resonate particularly in a contemporary setting, when there’s so much doubt about America and its place in the world – when there’s a darkness on the edge of town.

‘These days some reminding of who we are and who we can be isn’t such a bad thing.’

There’s a compelling moment early in the show when Springsteen comes clean about the source of his classic blue collar narratives.

'I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I … I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life. I've never done any hard labor. I've never worked nine to five… I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.'

Though Springsteen had little first hand experience of working class struggle, it becomes clear, nonetheless, that his storytelling gift was rooted in observation of the community he grew up in, awareness of its strengths and passions, sensitivity to its trials and tribulations. Moreover, many of his songs were inspired by his father - ‘my hero and my greatest foe’ - a complex man of Dutch Irish descent, who was haunted by depression and drink and struggled to find work.

‘Now those whose love we wanted but didn’t get, we emulate them. It’s the only way we have in our power to get the closeness and the love that we needed and desired.’

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It is conventional to characterize composers and storytellers as lonely, isolated souls, as outsiders struggling to articulate their unique personal vision and experience. Springsteen’s narrative, by contrast, expresses an intense sense of belonging - to family, community and country – harnessed to acute observational skills. He has profound empathy and emotional intelligence. He feels for other people. And this equips him to tell their stories.

Springsteen should prompt all of us working in creative industries to interrogate our own roots, background and community: How have my history and culture made me? How have I been influenced by my parents and siblings? How am I a product of my hometown?

When confronted by a taxing brief or a blank sheet of paper, when struggling for a creative spark, the inspiration may be close to home.

 

'I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from LA.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away.
But now there's wrinkles around my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night.
When I come home the house is dark,
She sighs "Baby did you make it all right."

Tonight, tonight the highway's bright,
Out of our way mister you best keep.
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racing in the street.'

Bruce Springsteen,’Racing in the Streets

No. 213

Gainsborough’s Daughters: Even Hard Nosed Business People Can Have Soft Centres

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

I confess I’ve not been the greatest fan of Thomas Gainsborough. All those flattering portraits of lords, ladies and the landed gentry; of stout colonels, fashionable celebrities and bewigged countesses. All those haughty looks, formidable stares, self-satisfied glances. Gainsborough was clearly a gifted artist. With his fast, light-handed brushstrokes, he elegantly captured the confident swagger of eighteenth century English society. But to me his pictures displayed little warmth or psychological insight.

I may have misjudged him.

I recently attended an exhibition of Gainsborough’s family portraits. (‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 3 February.)

Gainsborough was the first British artist regularly to paint himself and his family members. Although he claimed to prefer landscape painting to the portraiture that made his name and paid his keep, these intimate works were a labour of love. Many were unfinished. Perhaps he liked to tinker away at them in his spare time. Perhaps he just preferred them that way.

With her rosy cheeks and black mantilla, Gainsborough’s wife Margaret looks somewhat long-suffering and resigned. In her white lace bow and bonnet, older sister Sarah, a milliner, suggests intelligence and determination. Artist nephew Gainsborough Dupont appears in a blue silk jacket, all handsome and romantic. Clerical brother Humphrey seems sincere and devout. Older brother John, unshaven with unruly hair, comes across as something of a rogue. Nicknamed ‘Scheming Jack’, John was endlessly pursuing ill-fated money-making projects. The picture is inscribed ‘Gainsborow’.

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Gainsborough portrays his family as ordinary middle-class folk with characterful faces and stories to tell; interesting people in everyday attire, with varied preoccupations and concerns.

I was particularly struck by a sequence of paintings, created over many years, of Gainsborough’s two daughters. Margaret, aged 5, reaches for a butterfly, and 6-year-old Mary grasps her hand to protect her from an unseen thistle bush. A few years later Mary puts a comforting arm around her sister’s shoulder as she cradles a cat. Then Mary adjusts Margaret’s hair as she stares out at us, slightly annoyed perhaps. The two teenage sisters earnestly contemplate their art studies. The two society ladies in their twenties rejoice in their silk finery, attended by a faithful hound.

Seen through the paintings he made of his daughters, Gainsborough comes across, not as a sycophantic lover of celebrity elites, but rather as a protective, thoughtful and affectionate father. He wants the best for his girls. He believes in them.

I found myself rather liking this Gainsborough.

In the world of business we are sometimes quick to dismiss colleagues, competitors and clients as villains and fools. We leap to assumptions, jump to conclusions. We readily characterize people as simple-minded, selfish and soulless.

But we may simply have approached from the wrong angle, got off on the wrong foot. Often hard-nosed commercial people have soft centres; sometimes cool, calculating exteriors conceal tender, warm-hearted interior lives.

You just need to ask the right questions.

Thomas Gainsborough  Portrait of the Artist's Daughters , about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist's Daughters, about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

As so often in life, things didn’t quite turn out for Gainsborough’s daughters as he or they had hoped. The young women didn’t pursue an artistic career. Aged 30 Mary married a musician, but it didn’t work out and she returned home two years later. Her mental health deteriorated, and Margaret, who never married, took care of her in seclusion in Acton. When Margaret passed away, Mary was committed to an asylum where she stayed for the rest of her life. 

Thomas Gainsborough himself died from cancer in 1788 at the age of 61. In his last letter he wrote, somewhat wistfully:

‘’Tis odd how all the childish passions hang about one in sickness. I am so childish that I could make a kite, catch gold finches, or build little ships.'

No. 212

About Time

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'Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus.' 
(Meanwhile time flies; it flies never to return.)
Virgil, Georgics 

I recently visited Christian Marclay’s splendid installation at the Tate Modern in London: ‘The Clock 2010’ (until 20 January).

Marclay and his team of researchers spent several years collecting excerpts from famous and lesser-known films that feature clocks, watches and other timepieces. He then edited these clips together so that they show the actual time. The final artwork, viewed in a cinema setting, is 24-hours long and contains around 12,000 different movie moments.

At about 10-40 AM Hugh Grant is woken by multiple alarms; Gary Cooper looks apprehensively at a wall clock; Humphrey Bogart rouses a sleeping Gloria Grahame; Adam Sandler suggests there’s still time for a McDonald's Breakfast. We skip seamlessly through time references in ‘Clockwise’, ‘Columbo’ and ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Talented Mister Ripley’, ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Three Colours: Blue.’ We see church clocks, railway clocks, grandfather clocks; wrist watches and pocket watches; sundials, hourglasses and microwave LEDs. We hear chimes, peals, beeps and ticks. We observe conversations about time; dramas around deadlines.

We find ourselves enthralled, spotting the film references, amused by the editor’s choices. We want to follow particular sequences longer. But we can’t. Time and the edit march on.

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

Collage courtesy: https://journalofseeing.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/high-noon-clocks/

At around 5-00 PM Jack Nicholson leaves work for the very last time; Robert Redford hits a home run and the ball shatters the stadium clock; Clint Eastwood observes a gunfight between Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.

Since the source material of ‘The Clock’ comes from the world of cinema, there’s a heightened sense of drama: an urgency as heists are planned, trains are delayed, deadlines loom. We arrive early for an appointment, late for a conference. Time is elastic. It slows down as the meeting drags on, as the boredom sets in; and then speeds up as the alarm goes off, the gun is fired.

At this precise moment, somewhere in the world babies are being born, promises are being made, crimes are being committed, hearts are being broken. We are struck by the sense that our complex, fragmentary existence is unified by the ticking clock. Time is the ever-present adhesive that holds it all together, the harness that keeps us in step. Time is sometimes a silent witness. Sometimes it is a catalyst, an actor in events. It can be relentless, oppressive, unforgiving.

‘The Clock is very much about death in a way. It is a memento mori.’
Christian Marclay

The creative industry has often had an uncomfortable relationship with time. We feel constrained by schedules, intimidated by deadlines. We balk at timetables and Gantt charts. We hesitate and delay, postpone and prevaricate. We always want more time.

'Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.’
William Penn

It doesn’t have to be this way.

BBH was famous for the creativity of its output, but many were surprised at its passion for process. We loved schedules, progress reports and status meetings; reviews and timing plans; project and traffic management. Indeed one of the Agency’s core beliefs was ‘processes that liberate creativity’.

I have always liked this phrase. It suggests that if we embrace the discipline of planning and preparation, if we properly plot the priority and sequence of tasks, time can become an ally to ideas, not an enemy. We shouldn’t be working all hours; we should be making all hours work for us. With proper forethought, it’s possible to make time, not waste it.

'The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time."'
Franklin Field

'Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette.
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget.
Oh oh, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide.’

 David Bowie, ‘Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'

No. 211

Discovering Japan: Reflections On Craft and Creativity

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

I recently returned from a holiday in Japan.

Greeted with a gong, welcomed with a bow. And the sweet smell of tatami mats. Shoes off, slippers on. Folding screens and sliding doors, chairless rooms and legless chairs. Matcha tea. Hard low beds and pillows filled with beans.

Taxi doors swing open automatically. Toilets stand to attention when you enter the room. Hai! Look out of the carriage when you’re crammed in on the subway train. Queue here. Be quiet. ‘Do not touch the geisha’.

A polite smile, then a gentle gesture. Sushi, yakitori, teppanyaki? Tempura, sashimi, miso soup. Gingko nuts. Choose your sake glass. Arigato. Kampai!

After dinner, neon lights and karaoke. ‘More than this, you know there’s nothing.’ Revolut! Maybe I’ll have the Western-style breakfast this time.

Bento boxes on bullet trains. Reversible seats. Out of the window we can see Mount Fuji peeping through the clouds. There are high peaks, open plains, deep valleys and crystal lakes. There are small trucks, compact cities, factories that still make stuff.

We visit tranquil gardens and bustling fish markets, austere merchants’ houses and colourful shrines. Chimes in the afternoon. We read tales of ninja, samurai and shoguns. We see whisky-drinking salarymen in the dimly lit bar of the Imperial Hotel. We watch sailor-suited school kids on a class outing, young women getting their photos taken in rented kimonos, beardless hipsters with magnificent hair. The infinite possibilities of vending machines. The limitless permutations of workwear. Neat, neat, neat.

To the Western tourist Japan is curious, challenging and delightful all at the same time. It’s strange but familiar; the same but different; futuristic but traditional.

Japan is also a country of quite extraordinary ingenuity and invention. The technology, engineering and logistics hugely impress. Perhaps there is something ingrained in the culture. The Grand Shrine of Ise is torn down and rebuilt every twenty years to reflect Shinto concerns about impermanence, death, rebirth and renewal. Creative destruction?

But Japan is also a country obsessed with quality: consideration of materials, care of manufacture, craft of execution. You see it in the food and the fashion, the interior design and the service culture.

You see it at the Japanese Galleries of the Tokyo National Museum - in the glazed ceramic vases and polished lacquer trays; the courtly calligraphy and narrative picture scrolls; the steel samurai swords and decorative sutra boxes; the ornate kettles and tea caddies; the finely embroidered kabuki costumes.

Many of these precious objects had no named artist or creator. Most of them were following an established tradition, path or process. All of them were precise and refined, elegant and just so. Craft is as important as creativity here.

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Photo: D. Cummings-Palmer

Wandering through these galleries I found myself asking whether we in the communications sector spend enough time reflecting on craft. Do we celebrate excellence of execution as much as we do originality of thought? Do we allocate time appropriately between strategy, creative and production? Do we properly respect our talent in design and art direction, film-making, photography and web-build? Do we suitably invest in craft skills and training?

I’m not so sure. Sometimes, whilst wasting time and money on the front end, we squeeze production resource and budgets at the back end. Sometimes we display a cavalier attitude to expertise. Sometimes in the expansive realms of content development and dynamic creativity, we operate a culture of ‘good enough’.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck. Occasionally John Hegarty would observe, somewhat cryptically:

‘If creativity is 80% idea, it’s also 80% execution.’

Clearly a great Agency in any era must excel at both creativity and craft.

At the start of one year Nigel Bogle addressed the Agency with a simple chart. It had ‘Better’ on the x-axis and ‘Different’ on the y-axis. The objective this year, he said, is to position ourselves at the top right-hand corner of this graph: we must be both better and more different – than the sector norms, than our competitors, than we have ever been before.

Hai! 

And a happy new year to you all.

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'Her heart is nearly breaking, the earth is nearly quaking.
The Tokyo taxi's braking, it's screaming to a halt.
And there's nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you,
And every kiss enslaves you.
Discovering Japan.
Discovering Japan.’

Graham Parker, 'Discovering Japan'

No. 210

PsychoBarn: A Lesson in Disorientation


I came up from Green Park tube, walked along Piccadilly, past the Ritz, the Wolseley and the Caffè Concerto, and turned into the Royal Academy.

There, in the neo-classical courtyard of this august building, sat a red family house with slatted wooden walls, gothic ornamentation, a tatty white porch and a steep mansard roof.

It stopped me in my tracks.

'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)’ is a piece by the British artist, Cornelia Parker (at the Royal Academy until March 2019). It was first shown on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016.  It was built using materials reclaimed from a typical American red barn. They have been carefully dismantled, then re-assembled in the form of the Bates family mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This in turn was itself a studio interpretation of an Edward Hopper painting, ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925). ‘PsychoBarn’ is smaller in scale than a normal house (just over 30 feet). And it is incomplete. At its rear it is supported by scaffolding, just like a stage-set.

The piece suggests a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ romanticism, at the same time as concealed threat and inarticulate menace. Parker talks about confronting the 'polarities of good and evil'. It is a house built from a barn. It is not whole. It deceives. Its scale confuses. In an urban context its architecture disorientates. And being modeled on a film, which in turn was inspired by a painting, it carries layered meaning.

Parker borrowed the term 'transitional object' from developmental psychology. It was coined in 1951 by the analyst DW Winnicott to describe an item used to provide psychological comfort as a substitute for reality - typically a child’s comfort blanket or teddy bear.

 

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‘PsychoBarn’ is like a comfort blanket in that it is real and unreal. It is initially attractive, simple, reassuring. But on closer inspection it is deceitful, ambiguous, complex.

‘I like the idea that you take things that perhaps seem clichéd. But they’re clichéd for a reason. They resonate with a huge amount of people…The inverse of the cliché is the most unknown place.’

Cornelia Parker

There’s a simple lesson that we could all learn here.

So often modern communication reflects and confirms the world as it is, or as we would want it to be. Our ideas are two-dimensional, flat and transparent. We pedal clichés rather than subverting them; reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging them. Consumption becomes easy, passive and comfortable. And at the same time bland, safe and forgettable.

If we really want to be remembered, we should endeavour to disorientate our viewers; to disarm and disturb them. We should consider changing the context, adjusting the scale, reconfiguring the materials, juxtaposing the incongruous, layering the meaning, subverting the message.

In the midst of the comforting and familiar, we should seek out ‘the most unknown place.’

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Time for a festive break.
Next post will be on Thursday 3 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side, I hope.

'Christmas is here.
I know what I want this year.
Presents and toys are fine.
But I got bigger things in mind.
Santa can you swing more love? More peace?
Because that’s what everybody needs.’

Macy Gray, ’All I Want for Christmas'

No. 209

Shot by Both Sides: Protecting the Right to Change One’s Mind

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Now I’m not sure I’d recommend the 1948 movie ‘A Southern Yankee’ to you. It’s a moderate comedy set during the American Civil War that was often on TV when I was a kid.

I remember being particularly amused by one scene, which it transpires was masterminded by the great Buster Keaton. Red Skelton plays a soldier who finds himself serving with both armies in the conflict. At one point, by a stroke of bad luck, he has to make his way between the Northern and Southern forces in the midst of a furious battle. He realises he must select a side, but the moment he does so he’ll be mincemeat.

Red resolves to stitch two uniforms and two flags together, so that he can be Union from one perspective and Confederate from the other. Initially the plan works. When he marches between the opposing battalions, each army cheers as they see him sporting their own uniform and flag.

However, the wind changes, and Red’s ensign reverses. Some soldiers grow suspicious. In the confusion he turns round. Now both armies see him wearing the opposition’s colours. Disaster! Red ends up being shot by both sides.

'Shot by both sides,
On the run to the outside of everything.
Shot by both sides,
They must have come to a secret understanding.’

'Shot By Both Sides', Magazine (Howard Devoto)

Generally speaking, we are sceptical of people who equivocate. They are weak and hesitant, tentative and unreliable. We accuse them of fudging and hedging, sitting on the fence, standing on the sidelines.

Rather we applaud conviction, confidence and consistency. We like people who are single-minded and strong-willed; who hold the line and stay the course.

In creative businesses we have a particular aversion to circumspection. We belittle the cautious and careful as indecisive and irresolute. The legendary art director and designer George Lois, for instance, complained about what he called ‘The Abominable No Man’:

‘Tell the devil’s advocate in the room to go to hell.’

But sometimes new information reframes the dilemma; new data suggest a different direction; new circumstances demand a change of course. There is a point where self-assurance becomes intransigence; where determination to see things through becomes refusal to see things any other way.

It’s never easy to admit we may have been wrong. It can be awkward, humiliating and embarrassing, particularly when we’re confronting serious issues and big decisions. And so we’ll do anything we can to resist it. As the economist JK Galbraith observed:

'Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.'

Great leaders have the ability to see the merit of opposing perspectives and points of view; to weigh up different sides of an argument and take decisive action accordingly. They pursue their chosen course with conviction. But they also have the courage, humility and good sense to adjust their opinions in line with new evidence and information; to evolve their strategy to accommodate new knowledge and understanding. Great leaders know how to change their minds.

As the nineteenth century American philosopher and psychologist, William James wrote:
'If you can change your mind, you can change your life.'

'Aww, she didn't bat an eye
As I packed my bags to leave.
I thought she would start to cry
Or sit around my room and grieve.
But y'all, the girl, she fooled me this time.
She acted like I was the last thing on her mind.
I would like to start all over again.
Baby, can I change my mind,
I just want to change my mind.’

Tyrone Davis, ’Can I Change My Mind’ (Barry George Despenza / Carl Wolfolk)

No. 208