The Bias Cut: Halston and the Perils of Brand Extension

Photography © Dogwoof

Photography © Dogwoof

‘I believe in our country, and I like America, and I want Americans to look good. And I’m an American designer and I want the opportunity to do it.’
Legendary US designer Halston, on signing a 5 year licensing deal with JC Penney

I recently saw a fascinating documentary about the American fashion legend, Halston (‘Halston' a film by Frédéric Tcheng). It’s the story of a designer who was instinctively in tune with his times, who rewrote the rule book, but who ultimately fell victim of his own success. It’s a story that teaches us a good deal about the perils of brand extension.

Roy Halston Frowick was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932. Having developed an early interest in sewing, he moved to Chicago, found work as a window dresser and enrolled in a night course at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1953 he opened his own milliners business, which was quickly successful. Soon he was creating hats for the likes of Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, Deborah Kerr and Hedda Hopper.

In 1957 Halston moved to New York where he was appointed head milliner for high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman. He gained wider celebrity by putting Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat for JFK’s 1961 inauguration. In 1968 he opened his first womenswear boutique on Madison Avenue.

‘I’m the all-time optimist and I like it right now.’

Halston in New York in 1980. Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match Archive/Paris Match via Getty Images

Halston in New York in 1980. Credit: SAUER Jean-Claude/Paris Match Archive/Paris Match via Getty Images

Halston’s style was right for the emancipated ‘70s. He was a minimalist and he began by stripping away what he saw as the unnecessary elements of female fashion: 

'All of the extra details that didn't work - bows that didn't tie, buttons that didn't button, zippers that didn't zip, wrap dresses that didn't wrap. I've always hated things that don't work.'

This resulted in clothes that were unstructured and unrestricted, relaxed and carefree - clothes more suited to times of liberation and social change.

Iman walks the runway in a Halston jersey dress in spring 1976, Pulse Magazine

Iman walks the runway in a Halston jersey dress in spring 1976, Pulse Magazine

‘He took away the cage, and he made things as though you didn’t really need the structure as much as you needed the woman.’
Pat Cleveland, Model, ‘Halston’

Halston favoured the bias cut: cutting cloth on the diagonal (at 45 degrees) rather than following the straight line of the weave. The technique caused the fabric to fall naturally over the body, creating sensuous curves and soft drapes. His clothes had a fluid functionality, elegance and ease. They were simple yet sophisticated, glamorous yet comfortable.

‘Fabric to Halston was like clay to a sculptor.’
Chris Royer, Model

Halston designed for the international jet-set, for professional women and the discotheque. He eroded the divide between womenswear and menswear, between night and day. He worked with soft silks, sequins and satin, with chiffon and ultra-suede. He produced hot pants and halter-tops; suits and shirtdresses; cutaways, kaftans and capes - all finished off with a flamboyant big belt.

‘You were free inside your clothes.’
Karen Bjornson, Model

Halston was a natural publicist. Subscribing to the view that ‘You’re only as good as who you dress,’ his boutique drew celebrity clients like Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli.

‘His clothes danced with you.’ 
Liza Minnelli 

Halston, bottom left, and models in his designs. Photographed by Duane Michals, Vogue , December 1, 1972

Halston, bottom left, and models in his designs. Photographed by Duane Michals,Vogue, December 1, 1972

Halston brought a sense of theatre to everything he did. He turned up at events accompanied by an array of his favourite models, the Halstonettes. He styled the 1972 Coty Awards as a talent show, climaxing with ex-Warhol actor Pat Ast emerging dramatically from a cake. In 1977 he threw a 30th birthday party for Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Sitting atop a white horse, she was led around the dance floor by a naked giant covered in gold glitter.

 

The Urge to Expand

Halston was driven by an ambition to move forward, to grow, to reach more people.

'I don’t quite know where I got my ambition but I have it. I go into things with an optimistic point of view and I look at it straight and try to make it the biggest and best success I can. But the thing that holds my interest always is MORE - what’s next, what’s going to be the next exciting thing?'

In 1973, in order to fund expansion, Halston sold his company to Norton Simon Inc, a conglomerate whose properties included Max Factor and Canada Dry. The deal afforded him huge financial backing and he remained principal designer with complete creative control.

Norton Simon felt they were buying instant access to fashion credibility.

‘We wanted a top perfume and he was the hottest thing around. I just wanted to buy the whole thing. Just to have him on board for his general knowledge of panache.’
David Mahony, President, Norton Simon Inc

The auspices seemed good, and Halston dealt confidently with anyone querying the wisdom of the sale. 

‘It’s rather like growing a tree. Everyone thinks that you’re an overnight success. I’ve worked very hard for 20 years, and you know it’s just a further extension of it. It’s another branch. And they all help each other in a curious way.’

The Honeymoon

In the early years the new corporate partnership went incredibly well.

At the legendary Battle of Versailles Fashion Show of 1973 Halston’s presentation, fronted by Liza Minelli and making extensive use of black models, put America at the forefront of the global fashion industry.

‘All that energy and that joy and that wonder and that curiosity. Well, that is America!’
Liza Minnelli

In 1975 Max Factor released Halston's first branded fragrance for women. With its distinctive teardrop bottle design by Elsa Peretti it was an immediate success.

Halston expanded his line to include menswear and cosmetics, homeware and handbags, shoes and sunglasses, luggage and lingerie. He designed the uniforms for the 1976 US Olympic team, for Braniff Airways and Avis, for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the US Girl Scouts. He created the gold outfits for Sly Stone’s 1974 wedding at Madison Square Garden.

Indeed everything Halston touched turned to gold. In 1978 he moved his headquarters to the 21st floor of Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. The offices were adorned in white orchids and every wall was covered floor-to-ceiling in mirrored glass. 

"Halstonettes" Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson in 1980 - Photo, Dustin Pittman

"Halstonettes" Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson in 1980 - Photo, Dustin Pittman

The Cultural Tension

However, there were inevitably tensions between the corporate owners and the high-end fashion house. Prior to the launch of Halston’s fragrance, Max Factor executives complained about a bottle that couldn’t be filled from the top and branding that was limited to a ribbon round the pack.

In 1982 Halston signed a 5 year licensing deal with JC Penney, the archetypal mainstream department store. Halston was typically bullish about the move.

‘It’s really the third stage of my career. The first being in the millinery business, and then in fancy clothes and dressing all the stars… and now a larger public - dressing America really.’

The media talked about Halston moving ‘from class to mass.’ The President of Bergdorf Goodman deemed this a brand stretch too far and immediately delisted all Halston products from their stores.

Penney merchandisers began to complain that Halston’s working methods didn’t mesh well with their own.

‘He’s got to understand that we’ve got to commit like at least 8 months in advance. We need to get the approvals and the go-aheads and the concepts. But he’s so involved with everything that…the label took him months.’
JC Penney Merchandiser

The Troubled Genius

Halston was committed to retaining complete creative control as his business expanded. He refused to delegate.

‘I must be a part of it. I’ve never ever just leant my name for a commercial business venture.’

On the face of it, this was a good thing as it sustained quality through growth. But it also put incredible pressure on the man himself. He was overworked and stressed, tired and prone to panic attacks. Increasingly he turned to drugs to sustain him. He became a bully in the workplace, an aloof presence behind his signature black sunglasses. Deadlines slipped. 

‘It’s like quicksand. If everyone around you is going down, you’re going to go down too.’
Pat Cleveland, Model

The Decline and Fall

In 1983 Norton Simon was sold to Esmark, an even bigger conglomerate that included Playtex. Senior executives were immediately concerned by the wasteful practices and creative extravagances at Halston.

‘I’m at the top and I don’t care what’s happening in the engine-room. I know the engine-room isn’t running. And it wasn’t. Turn this into a brand. Turn this into something we can handle and stop having it be this airy fairy kind of ‘work when I want to, I’m not inspired, I’m an artist’ kind of thing.’
Walter Bregman, Playtex President

Halston’s MD took to placing ‘to-do’ notes on his desk every day. The relationship deteriorated. Halston came into work later and later. When at length he talked about leaving Esmark and starting out on his own again, he was quickly put back in his box.

‘You don’t own your own name, pal. Read the small print. We own your name.’
Walter Bregman, Playtex President

By this time Halston’s star was on the wane. Soon he was eclipsed by Calvin Klein and a new generation in fashion. In 1984 Halston was locked out of Olympic Tower, and a junior designer was given his role as creative director. Esmark sold off his samples and wiped all the tapes of his shows.

Halston retired to San Francisco and became a recluse. In 1990 he died of AIDS-related lung cancer, one month short of his 58th birthday. It was a sad and untimely end for a hugely talented and influential man. 

We always think a strong brand can comfortably extend into other areas of life. And often it can. And it goes on extending. And on and on. Until the elastic snaps.


'I'm in with the "in” crowd.
I go where the "in" crowd goes.
I'm in with the "in” crowd.
And I know what the "in" crowd knows.

I'm in with the "in” crowd.
I know every latest dance.
When you're in with "in" crowd
It's easy to find romance.’

Bryan Ferry, ’The ‘’In’’ Crowd (B Page)

 

No. 248


Not Just Reality, But Truth: Giacometti and the Virtues of Style


Giacometti - Figure

Giacometti - Figure

'The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.'
Alberto Giacometti

On a recent trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibition of the work of Alberto Giacometti (Vancouver Art Gallery until 29 September). The show originates from the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury held by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Inevitably I was drawn to Giacometti’s tall, slender bronze figures. Big feet, small heads, rough hewn and long limbed. Standing somber, pacing purposefully, stripped bare, isolated and alone. They seem to suggest the very essence of humanity - and after the Second World War they were taken to represent society’s existential crisis.

'When I make my drawings... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.’

I was also struck by Giacometti’s portraits. They sit square on, staring us straight in the eye. We can see how the artist has restlessly worked and reworked the image: the scratching and scraping; the narrowing focus on posture, frame, face and eyes; the struggle to capture an essence, an identity, a soul.

‘One day when I was trying to draw a girl, something struck me: suddenly I saw that the only thing that stayed alive was her gaze. The rest, the head which was turning into a skull, became more or less the skull of a dead person. The only difference between the dead and living is the gaze.’

Giacometti was notorious for refusing to accept that his portraits were ever finished. On one occasion the Sainsburys needed to get a work signed. But they were warned not to let the artist get his hands on the piece, as he’d never give it back.

Alberto Giacometti -  Diego Seated , 1948,  oil on canvas

Alberto Giacometti - Diego Seated, 1948,
oil on canvas

'That's the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.'

Perhaps there is something we can all learn here. We live in an era of pragmatism and practicality; of discipline around deadlines. We’re taught that ‘done is better than perfect’ and ‘perfect is the enemy of good’. But in the digital age a task is never complete, a goal never reached. Endings represent a submission, a letting go, a kind of complacency. Nowadays we must constantly improve, endlessly evolve. We shouldn’t be afraid to keep on, to persist in the quest for perfection.

'Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.’

One section of the exhibition considers Giacometti’s sources and influences. In the 1920s he studied classical sculpture in Paris, and he spent days in the city’s museums sketching and making notes. He was clearly inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and West African art.

‘Have you ever noticed that the truer a work is the more stylized it is? That seems strange, because style certainly does not conform to the reality of appearances, and yet the heads that come closest to resembling people I see on the street are those that are the least naturalistic – the sculptures of the Egyptians, the Chinese, the archaic Greeks and the Sumerians.’

Many years ago, on a visit to Athens, I came across the Museum of Cycladic Art. I was bowled over by the elegantly reduced female figures, highly stylised in smooth white marble. Arms folded, flat faced and sharp nosed, they reach out to us across the centuries, cool and aloof, silent and knowing. Originating from a small group of Aegean islands in the second and third millennia BC, Cycladic figures are consistently cited as an inspiration for modern sculptors.

UEA_342-fill.png

And here they are again at a Giacometti exhibition on the other side of the world. The artist explained why he found them so compelling.

‘If I didn’t know that your skull had a certain depth, I couldn’t guess it. Therefore, if I made a sculpture of you absolutely as I perceive you, I would make a rather flat, scarcely modulated, sculpture that would be much closer to a Cycladic sculpture, which has a stylised look, than to a Rodin or Houdon, which has a realistic look.’

Giacometti regarded art as 'the residue of vision.’ It’s what’s left behind after flawed perception and fading memory have decayed and distorted the lived experience. Beyond reality there is truth.

Perhaps sometimes in the world of brands, communication and entertainment we strive too hard to reproduce reality, to reflect the world as it actually is. Giacometti suggests that we should set aside our crude attempts at naturalism; that rather we should reduce, condense and distil - and then embrace style, abstraction and individual interpretation.

All we have to do is take a leap.

'The more I work, the more I see things differently - that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.'



'So true, funny how it seems.
Always in time, but never in line for dreams.
Head over heels when toe to toe,
This is the sound of my soul.
This is the sound.
I bought a ticket to the world,
But now I've come back again.
Why do I find it hard to write the next line?
Oh, I want the truth to be said.
I know this much is true.
I know this much is true.’

Spandau Ballet, ‘True’ (G Kemp)

No. 247

Play for Today: The Answer To Your Future May Reside in Your Past

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There were some advantages to growing up in the era before multi-channel TV. Lack of choice corralled you into regularly watching shows about inventions, astronomy, sheep dog trials and show jumping. Back then it seemed perfectly ordinary for a teenager to be sat at home following a snooker game in black and white, estimating the value of an antique chaise longue, guessing the identity of a musical piece played on a soundless keyboard. It was a kind of forced serendipity. In the absence of videogames and the internet, in the era of unheated bedrooms, there was nothing else to do. Sometimes a narrow diet broadens the mind.

My father and I particularly enjoyed watching a BBC series of one-off dramas, ‘Play for Today’. The pieces considered contemporary British life, and were written by the great dramatists of the time – people like Alan Bleasdale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal and Dennis Potter. ‘Play for Today’ was a window into other people’s worlds. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ related the concerns of a Jewish lad growing up in North London; ‘The Black Stuff’ recounted the adventures of Liverpudlian tarmac layers during the recession; ‘Nuts in May’ told the tale of a nature-loving couple on a camping holiday.

‘Play for Today’ was not easy viewing. It consistently delivered arguments and upsets, temper tantrums and emotional outbursts. Here were families at war, relationships on the edge, jobs on the line.

One day, after a particularly eventful episode, I turned to my father and challenged him:

Look, Dad, I love ‘Play for Today’. But most people’s lives are really not this dramatic.’

As a suburban youth, growing up in a happy lower middle class home, I was under the impression that the majority of the population led rather ordinary, uncomplicated lives. I imagined my own unfolding in a simple and seamless way: go to university, get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family, take up gardening…

As I grew older I realised that life’s not like that. With every passing year you find that another illness or career dilemma, another financial challenge or brush with the law, another triumph or disaster, has affected your friends and family - and indeed yourself. Someone close has succumbed to teenage angst, twenty-something stress, a mid-life crisis, the softening of old age. Someone dear has been cursed by a tempestuous relationship, a torrid break-up; is haunted by missed opportunities, disappointed ambitions.

 

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In truth most people’s lives could provide the material for their very own ‘Play for Today’. And indeed, as I reflect on my own childhood, it probably wasn’t so ordinary after all. It explains a good deal about who I am now.

Screenshot 2019-09-04 at 18.57.43.png

 ‘Childhood is the bank balance of the writer.’
Graham Greene

It’s important to bear this in mind when considering your colleagues. You may regard them as robust, settled and steady. You may feel you’ve got a pretty good appreciation of what makes them tick. But, in my experience, individuals often conceal domestic concerns from the office. They often suppress anxieties, tensions and traumas that date back well before they arrived.

My old boss Nigel Bogle was a firm believer in brand archaeology pointing the way to future business success:

 ‘If you want to make a brand great again look at what made it great in the first place.’

I suspect this sentiment may be as true of people as it is of brands. If we know our colleagues’ personal narratives, their early struggles and experiences, we can better comprehend what motivates them and stands in their way; their enduring values and character. If we spend time properly listening to the dramas that propelled them through childhood, we’ll better understand the behaviour of their adult selves - and be better equipped to get the best out of them at work. The answer to our future often resides in our past.

So go on. Find a quiet moment, lean over to the person next to you, and gently enquire: 

‘Tell me about your childhood.’

 

'It's not a case of telling the truth.
Some lines just fit the situation.
Call me a liar,
You would anyway.

It's not a case of aiming to please.
You know you're always crying.
It's just your part
In the Play for Today.’

The Cure, 'Play for Today’ (L Tolhurst / M Hartley / R Smith / S Gallup)

 

No. 246

 

In Quiet Contemplation: ‘It Is in Silence that One Gets to Face Oneself’

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Self-Portrait, Black Background,  1915

Helene Schjerfbeck,Self-Portrait, Black Background, 1915

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (Royal Academy, London, until 27 October).

Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki in 1862. Her father was an office manager in the state railways. When at the age of 4 she fell down the stairs and broke her hip, she was given drawing materials to cheer her up. It soon became clear that she had a special talent, and at 11 she was sent to study art in Helsinki. In 1880 she moved to Paris, and she subsequently spent time in artists’ colonies at Pont Aven, Brittany and St Ives, Cornwall. 

Schjerfbeck began as a realist, and over the years her work embraced impressionism and abstraction. She painted still lifes and landscapes, rural views and domestic scenes. Yet one is most struck by her portraits.

Schjerfbeck’s subjects regard us over their shoulders. Then they turn away and look down. Sometimes they simply close their eyes. Her friend Maria attends to her book with her back to us. Her black-clad mother reads, sews and sits silently with her hands clasped in front of her. The seamstress and the schoolgirl are lost in private reflection. 

Occasionally the melancholy mood is lifted by an element of fashion. Schjerfbeck subscribed to Marie Claire magazine and had an eye for a beret, a cloche hat, a bold shade of lipstick. 

From her early twenties until the end of her life, aged 83, Schjerfbeck painted raw, candid self-portraits. Hair neat, lips pursed, eyebrows arched. Angular features. A spot of rouge on her cheeks. The portraits become progressively more pared back, more abstract and anguished. Youth fades, skin pales, colours recede, shadows fall. Finally she faces death, gaunt and alone.

One leaves the Schjerfbeck exhibition haunted by a sense of sadness. She was an artist of introspection; of quiet rooms and muted colours; of silence and stillness.

When I was at college I recall a visit from my friend Catrin’s parents. I was babbling away, filling the awkward silence with inconsequential nonsense - as is my wont. At length Cat’s father addressed me in somewhat severe Welsh tones:

‘It is in silence that one gets to face oneself.’

These words stuck with me.

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Maria (detail),  1909

Helene Schjerfbeck,Maria (detail), 1909

I have generally subscribed to the view that an active mind needs constant stimulus; that it must process that stimulus into opinions and beliefs; that we must always be looking, listening and learning, deliberating, debating and discussing. But there’s a limit. As I’ve aged I’ve realised that it’s also important to stop and catch one’s breath; to liberate the brain from the trivial and unimportant; to pause and take stock. I have found it helpful when on the verge of sleep, on the edge of consciousness, to review the day and reflect on tomorrow. I guess I’ve gradually learned to appreciate absence and stillness.

‘Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.’

Fate dealt Schjerfbeck a cruel hand. Her childhood accident left her with a lifelong limp and she suffered poor health. She was unlucky in love. Financially challenged, she spent many years nursing her mother in a small town north of Helsinki. She died in a sanatorium in Sweden in 1946. Nonetheless, one can’t help thinking that, though she had a tough life, she probably left it with profound knowledge and understanding, and with a strong sense of self. Perhaps that is enough.

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

'Quiet nights of quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence that surrounds us.
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams,
And the window that looks out on Corcovado. Oh how lovely.’

Astrud Gilberto, ‘Quiet Nights (Corcovado)’ (A C Jobim / G Lees)

No. 245

‘You Got to Have Vision to See’: Tennessee Williams and The Fugitive Kind

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‘This country used to be wild, the men and women were wild and there was a wild sort of sweetness in their hearts, for each other. But now it’s sick with neon, it’s broken out sick with neon, like most other places.’
Carol Cutrere, ‘Orpheus Descending’

I recently saw a fine production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London). This 1957 play meant a good deal to Williams. It was a re-write of his 1940 piece, ‘Battle of Angels,’ which was his first work to be given a professional production. He also adapted it into the 1959 movie ‘The Fugitive Kind’, starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. (Brando’s performance earned him the first million-dollar contract for a single film.)

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a hot Southern stew of ‘memories and the loneliness of them’; of isolated strangers yearning for intimacy in a world of prejudice and bigotry. 

’Nobody ever gets to know no body! We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!’

Lady Torrance runs a small-town dry goods store and she busies herself attending to her narrow-minded, gossiping customers. Her tyrannical husband lies upstairs, unloved and dying. The local free-spirit, Carol Cutrere, who ‘has an odd, fugitive beauty,’ arrives to ruffle some feathers.

‘I’m an exhibitionist! I want to be noticed, seen, heard, felt! I want them to know I’m alive!’

Carol takes a shine to Val Xavier, a drifter who has recently arrived in town with little more than a snakeskin jacket and a guitar to his name.

‘I’d love to hold something the way you hold your guitar, that’s how I’d love to hold something, with such - tender protection!’

But Val has other things on his mind. Vowing to put the troubadour life behind him, he pitches for a job as Lady’s store clerk. Lady is initially sceptical.

Val: ‘I got nowhere to go.’
Lady: ‘Well, everyone’s got a problem and that’s yours.’

Gradually, however, Val charms Lady into giving him a chance. He’s a talkative, sensitive, self-assured young man, with a philosophical nature.

‘You know they’s a kind of bird that don’t have legs so it can’t light on nothing, but has to stay all its life on its wings in the sky?... They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die… I’d like to be one of those birds; they’s lots of people would like to be one of those birds and never be – corrupted!’

‘Orpheus Descending’ is a celebration of birds that can’t settle, that stay on the wing, cherishing their freedom; a celebration of misfits and malcontents, oddballs and outsiders; of artists and activists, musicians and immigrants; of ‘the ‘fugitive kind’.

In one scene, eccentric local artist, Vee Talbott, a woman of a nervous disposition, endeavors to explain to Val her impressionistic style of painting.

‘I paint a thing how I feel it instead of always the way it actually is. Appearances are misleading, nothing is what it looks like to the eyes. You got to have – vision – to see!’

This thought resonated with me. 

Professionally I was raised to follow the discipline of Vision, Strategy and Tactics: we should always set out with a clear, compelling Vision; Vision drives Strategy; Strategy drives Tactics; and everything else is just a distraction.

However, there’s something about the contemporary discourse that works against this approach. Whether one considers the field of politics or commerce, one cannot help noticing the absence of guiding Visions. Of course, a Vision Statement may exist on a website somewhere, in a Manifesto or Company Report perhaps, or in an arcane deck of charts. But rarely nowadays do you see clear evidence of Vision driving everyday behaviour and beliefs. 

We spend most of our time reacting to events and responding to circumstance. We duck and dive, nip and tuck. We get caught up in the petty and prosaic, the incidental and insignificant. The competitive storm, the relentless media scrutiny, the headlong tilt towards change; the urgency of now, the pressing need for immediate opinion and instant action – they all combine to drag the debate ineluctably down into Tactics. 

We may feel as though we’re actively engaged and urgently busy, as we expertly navigate our daily trials and tribulations. But as Vee Talbott knew, if we have no Vision, we just can’t see.

In the course of ‘Orpheus Descending’ the forces of small-town conservatism close in on Val. Inevitable really. And at the end of the play a mournful Carol is left in possession of his snakeskin jacket.

‘Wild things leave skins behind them, they leave clean skins and teeth and white bones behind them, and these are the tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can always follow their kind.’


'But what I'd like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful,
Or do we have to find our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?’

Stevie Wonder, ‘Visions’ (M Graves / L J Fiagbe)

 

No. 244

Are You Sitting Uncomfortably? The Healthy Scepticism of Felix Vallotton

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

Felix Vallotton - la loge de theatre (detail)

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. (The Royal Academy, London, until 29 September, and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 29 October to 26 January.)

Vallotton was born into a puritanical protestant family in Lausanne in 1865. Aged 16 he settled in Paris, at first to study and then to practice art. In the 1890s he associated with the circle of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets), whose number included Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. They sought to convey emotion rather than just to record reality. They admired Japanese woodblock prints, and their work was characterised by flattened figures, strong outlines and bold colours; by empty spaces and decorative patterns.

Vallotton became a master of the art of woodcut and he was commissioned to produce illustrations for journals and newspapers, including the influential La Revue Blanche. 

Belle Epoque Paris was prosperous and dynamic, brimming with fashion, fun and creativity. It was the centre of the art world and a hub for scientific innovation. But it was also a hotbed of political unrest and social upheaval. Vallotton seems to have been both captivated by the capital’s boundless energy and conscious of the tensions that lay just beneath the surface. In his work he regarded French society with an amused but critical eye, satirising the customs and values of the bourgeoisie.

There’s a pervasive disquiet about Vallotton’s art. He seems uneasy about the relationships that are played out in the dim lamplight, in the shadows, behind closed doors; uneasy about the turbulence of city life, about the passions of the new consumer society, about the durability of the family unit. What hypocrisy remains unvoiced behind a conventional conservative façade? What secrets and lies lurk around the corner, along the corridor, or beneath the brim of an elegant hat? 

Félix Vallotton,  The Ball (Le Ballon),  1899

Félix Vallotton,The Ball (Le Ballon), 1899

They’re caressing fabrics at Le Bon Marche. They’re partying in the Latin Quarter. They’re rioting on the streets. The crowd runs for cover from the pouring rain. A smart-suited gentleman waits expectantly by the window. A desolate man weeps into his handkerchief as a woman looks impassively on. A couple embrace by the doorway to a claustrophobic interior. A darkness creeps across the pond in the garden. There’s a child chasing an orange ball, unaware of the looming shadows. There’s something missing in the linen closet. There’s a knife erect in the fruit loaf.

Félix Vallotton,  Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty ,  1885

Félix Vallotton,Self-portrait at the Age of Twenty , 1885

Everything seems slightly on edge, an intriguing, incomplete narrative, a pressure cooker about to explode. Vallotton ratchets up the tension with his terse, enigmatic titles: ‘The Lie,’ ‘The Money,’ ‘The Provincial,’ ‘The Extreme Measure.’ His work foreshadows Hopper and Hitchcock in its dark humour and unsettling air of menace. 

Ours is an industry of emotions and enthusiasms; of fashions and fads. So it serves us well to retain a healthy objectivity, a suspicion of success, a caution around modish ideas. Scepticism insures us against egotism. Paranoia inoculates us against complacency. 

As Nigel Bogle was wont to warn, even in the good years, ‘We’re three phone calls away from disaster.’

So don’t get sucked in. Better to keep a cool head than to drink the Kool-Aid. Let’s maintain our distance, keep a wary eye. And like Vallotton, let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

 

'She had a place in his life.
He never made her think twice.
As he rises to her apology,
Anybody else would surely know
He's watching her go.
But what a fool believes, he sees.’

The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’ (M McDonald, K Loggins)

 

No. 243

 

Cleo’s Conundrum: ‘I Always Think Everyone's Looking at Me, But I Only Look at Myself’ 

'The tool of every self-portrait is the mirror. You see yourself in it. Turn it the other way, and you see the world.'
Director Agnes Varda

In the 1962 film ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’ Corinne Marchand plays the eponymous heroine, a successful Parisian pop singer who fears that she has cancer. The movie follows her movements on the first day of summer, from 5-00 to 6-30, as she waits to hear the results of her tests.

'Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I'm beautiful, I'm even more alive than the others.’

When we first encounter Cleo she comes across as somewhat superstitious, self-absorbed and trivial. She visits a tarot reader, bursts into tears in a café, and consoles herself with a visit to the hat shop. She revels in attention and recognition, and is constantly seeking her own reflection in mirrors.

‘Everything suits me. Trying things on gives me a thrill.’

However, we soon realise that Cleo’s identity is in part a product of the company she keeps. Her indulgent maid-companion avoids taxis with unlucky numbers and warns against wearing new clothes on Tuesdays. Her businessman lover only has time to pop in and shower her with hollow compliments. Her musician friends faun on her and compose frivolous songs for her with titles like ‘The Tease’ and ‘The Liar’. But they don’t think she quite has the voice for serious material.

They all treat Cleo like a child, privately regarding her as a hypochondriac drama queen. She is unable to have a proper conversation about her health concerns with any of them.

'Everybody spoils me. Nobody loves me.’

Finally Cleo can take no more. She discards her wig, changes into a simple black dress, and dons the inappropriate hat she purchased earlier. She walks out onto the Paris streets alone.

Cleo visits an old friend, Dorothee, an artist’s model who is hard up but happy. Taking a trip around town together, she is at last able to talk seriously about her fears. Cleo drops Dorothee home in a taxi. As her friend disappears up the steps, Cleo asks the cabby to slow down so that she can savour the moment. She seems to be undergoing some kind of awakening. She is more curious about the world around her, more alert to the people she passes on the street. She stops looking in mirrors.

Director Agnes Varda, who died in March of this year, explained the theme of ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’:

‘When the film starts, she’s just there to be looked at. When she takes off her wig and puts on her black dress and goes out, she’s the one who starts to look. Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave. Cleo, in the shock of being afraid of death, starts to see things differently.’
(Interviewed in Cleo, 6.1)

I was particularly taken with Cleo’s articulation of her dilemma. At a critical moment in the film, standing in front of a mirror, she declares:

‘I always think everyone's looking at me, but I only look at myself.’

This seems a thoroughly modern concern. This is us: our vanity, our solipsism, this narcissistic age. We are more interested in being known than knowing; in being understood than understanding. We think everyone’s looking at us, but we only look at ourselves.

Like Cleo, we should realise that the first step to a happy life, and indeed a successful career, is to remove our ego-tinted spectacles, to see the world as others see it. We need to cultivate abstraction.

Easier said than done perhaps.

At the Parc Montsouris Cleo meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian war. He senses that she is troubled.

'You seem to be waiting for something, rather than someone.'

Antoine is thoughtful, talkative, funny and wise. Gradually he charms Cleo and they enjoy an open, honest conversation about love, the war and her worries. He escorts her to the hospital, taking her by the hand.

Antoine: 'I'm sorry I'm leaving. I'd like to be with you.'
Cleo: 'You are. I think my fear is gone. I think I'm happy.’

 
‘With all the doors flung open,
The wind rushing through.
I’m like an empty house
Without you.

Like a deserted isle,
Covered by the sea.
My sands slip away
Without you.

Beauty wasted,
Naked in the cold of winter.
Just a yearning body
Without you.’

‘Sans Toi’, Corinne Marchand (M Legrand, A Varda)

In memory of Agnes Varda and Michel Legrand, both of whom passed away in 2019.

No. 242

 

 

Forget What You Know: Natalia Goncharova and the Spirit of ‘Everythingism’


Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962), Peasants Picking Apples 1911 (ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)

Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962), Peasants Picking Apples 1911 (ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019)

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Russian artist Natalia Goncharova. (Tate Modern, London until 8 September)

Peasants pick apples and dance in circles. They cut hay at harvest time and gather firewood in the snow. A head-scarfed bread seller caresses a crusty loaf. Two sporty rowers lean into their strokes. A couple of beefy wrestlers are locked in each other’s arms. Trains, planes and bicycles whizz past at incredible speed. Machines manically weave, as factory chimneys loom ominously over us. Angels grapple aeroplanes to the ground. 

Goncharova’s work at once captures the timeless routines of rural Russia and the breathless velocity of the twentieth century. It fizzes with vital energy, radiates with vibrant colour.

‘I believe that colour possesses a strange magic: sad colours, joyous or calm colours, a delicate or stronger colour harmony – these are not simply words that characterise an emotion similar to the sensations of taste. Colours have an effect on one’s psychological make-up.’

Natalia Goncharova’s ‘exhilarating’ Cyclist, 1913. Photograph: © ADAGP/DACS

Natalia Goncharova’s ‘exhilarating’ Cyclist, 1913. Photograph: © ADAGP/DACS

Goncharova was born into a family of Russian aristocrats in 1881. She grew up on country estates 200 miles from Moscow, and moved to the city when she was 11. At 20 she enrolled to study art at the Moscow Institute and by 22 she was exhibiting in the major salons. 

Although Goncharova was classically trained, she was inspired by modern French painters and by traditional Russian arts and crafts. In 1909 she left the Institute and with fellow radical students formed Moscow's first independent exhibiting group. Critical to her development as an artist was her rejection of everything she had studied at college.

‘I have passed through all that the West has to offer… and all that my country has assimilated from the West… I now shake the dust from my feet and distance myself from the West.’

Goncharova spurned conventional approaches to scale, perspective and naturalism. Her art spanned a range of contemporary styles: Primitivism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism. She painted still lifes, landscapes and nudes; traditional peasant scenes and snapshots of urban upheaval; pure abstractions and interpretations of religious icons.

Nor did Goncherova limit herself to painting. She turned her hand to prints, book illustrations and performance art; to theatre, fashion and interior design. She published zaum, a type of experimental sound poetry. And she invented the shirt-dress.

Goncharova was happy to court controversy. Critics were outraged by a 1910 exhibition of her work that included female nudes and pagan mythology, and she was charged for public display of ‘corrupting’ images.  

She was also a natural publicist. In 1913 a Moscow gallery staged a major retrospective of her work, which included over 800 of her pieces and was the first solo exhibition of any member of the Russian avant-garde. A few weeks before the opening, she and her fellow artists paraded through the streets with hieroglyphic patterns painted on their faces. Journalists had been alerted in advance, and the streets were lined with curious crowds. Some 12,000 people visited the show.

Goncharova left Russia in 1915 to design radical costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes. Unable to return home after the 1917 revolution, she settled in Paris where she continued to create in all manner of media right up until her death aged 81 in 1962.

I left the exhibition in awe of Goncharova’s audacity and exuberance, and of the rich diversity of her output. It’s difficult to define her style because she seemed to embrace so many of them. Indeed fellow artists described her work as ‘everythingism.’ 

'We acknowledge all styles as suitable for the expression of our art, styles existing both yesterday and today.'
Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov

Goncharova suggests that we should not be constrained by our education; that we should not feel obliged to follow established codes and best practice. Hers is a story of liberation, of following one’s passions wherever they lead.

What if we threw off the shackles of convention and taste? What if we rejected modish opinions and the limitations of style? What if we forgot what we know? 

Perhaps like Goncharova we would be free to pursue a broader range of methods, modes and media. Perhaps we too could find our own version of  ‘everythingism.’

 

'Somebody told me:
"Boy, everything she wants is everything she sees."
I guess I must have loved you,
Because I said you were the perfect girl for me.’

Wham! ‘Everything She Wants’ (G Michael)

 

No. 241

Space Is the Place: Nostalgia for the Future

Screenshot 2019-07-21 at 17.21.13.png

'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.' 

I know exactly where I was just before 4-00AM on the morning of July 21, 1969. I was in the sitting room of 125 Heath Park Road watching TV. My parents had got Martin and me out of bed to see Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon. I was 5 years old.

To be honest I’m not sure I recall the experience. Perhaps I just remember being told that I was there. But certainly rockets, space exploration and moon landings played an important part in my childhood. Back then we dreamed of astronauts, aliens and asteroids. We watched Star Trek, the Clangers and Thunderbirds on TV. We created space suits out of boxes and Bacofoil. And one summer Sister Mary Stephen helped me make a lunar landscape out of papier mache.

Armstrong: 'The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots.’

Over the last few weeks there have been numerous documentaries and dramas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Apollo 11’, which edited together original footage from NASA and the National Archives. 

The crowd at Cape Canaveral wait expectantly in sun visors and straw trilbies. The women sport cat-eye shades. Families in striped summer shirts camp out on the parking lot at JC Penney’s. Wide-angled lenses are trained and at the ready. At Mission Control Center in Houston banks of clean-cut men in headsets attend to their monitors. They wear white short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and have pens in pocket protectors. Their desks are cluttered with coffee cups and ashtrays. After a steak-and-egg breakfast, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins complete their final checks and wave goodbye. Then the unbearable tension of the countdown...

‘12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence start.’ 

Time slows to a crawl…

‘6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engines running.’ 

The thunderous roar, the fearsome commotion, as the Saturn V rocket escapes its umbilical tower, and takes off… 

‘Liftoff! We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour. Liftoff on Apollo 11.'

It’s a familiar drama now, but it still sends a chill down my spine.

Collins: 'Well, I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.’

As the adventure continues, I can’t help being struck by the dry, understated humour of these brave, intelligent men. I fell in love with the United States in 1969, with this casual heroism, this easygoing informality.

Aldrin: 'Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch... Making sure not to lock it on my way out.’

For me as a child the space program was entirely optimistic, inspiring, euphoric. It was a compelling tale of vision, ambition, ingenuity and courage. The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladders of the lunar module stated: ‘We came in peace for all mankind.' And President Nixon, speaking on the phone to Armstrong and Aldrin while they were on the moon surface, intoned in his rich, gravelly voice:

'For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one.'

There seemed something noble and uplifting about the whole endeavour.

Of course, looking at the flickering footage now, one can’t help noticing the shadow that the Eagle module cast over the moon’s surface. And there was a shadow over the space program too. 

There were protests about the US Government’s priorities at a time when the country was facing incredible poverty and inequality. At its peak in 1966, NASA accounted for roughly 4.4% of the federal budget. The resonance of Nixon’s words now seems tarnished by Vietnam and Watergate, and there’s a suspicion that we were simply witnessing another chapter of the Cold War. We also feel uncomfortable about the low representation of female and black faces at Mission Control; and the debris left on the lunar surface.

Armstrong: 'Isn’t that something! Magnificent sight out here.'
Aldrin: 'Magnificent desolation.’ 

Nowadays the future has lost some of its lustre. Although we’ve witnessed the most dramatic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, we have become concerned that the same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry; that a new corporate oligarchy threatens our privacy and security; that the freedoms of empowerment also carry the responsibilities of self-control. Inevitably we’re suffering change fatigue. 

Aldrin: 'We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.'

Despite the reservations, the Apollo 11 story prompts nostalgia for the future. It suggests that hope and optimism are the first steps to progress. It reminds us of the power of wide-eyed anticipation. We should not deny ourselves the chance to dream.

'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.'
President Kennedy, May 25, 1961

The US space program remains the definitive example of the motivational power of a clear and ambitious goal. It indicates that we can achieve great things if we channel talent and resource towards a unitary mission, if we commit to the principles of focus and weight.

Imagine reconvening those dudes in their thin ties and short-sleeved shirts. What if we could create the contemporary equivalent of Mission Control? What if we summoned a more diverse cross-section of the finest minds in the world, allocated proper investment, and set them a singular task? What if we asked them to save this planet rather than to visit some other celestial body?

Aldrin: 'There it is, it’s coming up!'
Collins: ‘What?'
Aldrin: 'The earth. See it?'
Collins: 'Yes. Beautiful.’


'Space is the place where I will go when I'm all alone 
Space is the place, 
Space is the place.’

Sun Ra, ’Space is the Place' 

No. 240

Not Copying, But Translating: Vincent Van Gogh and the Love of Many Things

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

‘The best way to know God is to love many things.’
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, 1880

I recently attended an exhibition exploring Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with Britain (‘Van Gogh and Britain,’ at Tate Britain until 11 August). 

In the spring of 1873, aged 20, Van Gogh travelled to London to work in the Covent Garden branch of the art dealers Goupil et Fils, and he stayed in England until the winter of 1876. He was not yet an artist at that time and he didn’t paint any pictures here. So the exhibition is really an exploration of the impact his British experiences had on him, and the impact he had on subsequent British artists.

‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better.’

Van Gogh loved strolling around London. He took a daily walk from his lodgings in Brixton, across Westminster Bridge, to his office in Covent Garden. He visited museums, art dealers and the National Gallery. He rowed on the Thames and tried out the new underground railways. He also fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He was dismissed from his job, briefly taught at a school in Ramsgate, and then served as a Methodist preacher in Richmond. 

‘My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.’

What makes a real impression is how much Van Gogh was soaking up stimulus during his time in England. English was one of his four languages and he loved reading Victorian novels. He admired the wood engravings of modern urban scenes that he found in journals like The Graphic. He was swept up by the growing enthusiasm for social reform. In later life he explored themes he had first encountered in the works of Dickens or in paintings at the National Gallery: lonely figures walk along a road through an autumn landscape; prison inmates troop around a high-walled yard; a man sits in despair, resting his face in his hands; an empty chair suggests a deceased former occupant. 

'Admire as much as you can. Most people do not admire enough.’

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

I had always imagined Van Gogh as the epitome of the artistic loner, ploughing his own furrow, blinkered to outside perspectives, rebelling against everything that has gone before. But in fact he was an avid consumer of culture, alert to fresh ideas, always out to learn and understand.

'I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.’

Van Gogh had catholic tastes. Indeed he developed the view that a plurality of interests and affections creates strength of character, contentedness and a reservoir of inspiration.

'It is good to love many things, for therein lies true strength. And whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!'

Professionally many of us are cautious about external influences, concerned that we will be tempted to reproduce and replicate, copy and counterfeit. But Van Gogh was so confident in his own unique perspective that he didn’t worry about drawing on other artists’ work.

‘It is not copying… It is rather translating into another language, one of colours.’

So perhaps we should all take a tip from Van Gogh. Pop out for a walk, visit a gallery, collect images, read. Go to the movies, listen to a lecture, take in a podcast on the way. Open yourself up to stimulus, inspiration, learning. Discuss your response, debate your reaction, write down what you think. Embrace a love of many things.

And whatever your current status, be determined to pursue your own path.

'What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have. In short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.'

 

'Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.’

Don McLean, 'Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)'


 

No. 239