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.

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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

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

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

 

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

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

A Cravat Too Far: Complacency Is Not a Uniform Condition

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

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

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

And then the assistant posed a question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No. 226

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.

5ba868e94a925c73cddd0653fed65854.jpg

'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

‘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

The Red Buoy: Beware Being Repositioned by the Competition

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden where his father was a barber and wig-maker. John Constable, born in Suffolk a year later, was the son of a wealthy corn merchant and miller.

Together these artists introduced a vibrant new way of depicting landscape. While their predecessors had set out to paint the natural world through mythical idealism or realistic accuracy, Turner and Constable sought to convey its true soul.

Turner painted shipwrecks, fires and fogs; violent seas and fierce storms; the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution. Constable was more gentle at heart. He painted picturesque waterways and working farms; elegant steeples, shimmering rainbows and gossamer clouds. 

Sadly the two artists never got on. Turner, who had been something of a child prodigy, regarded Constable as an upstart. Constable praised Turner in public, but in private described his work as ‘just steam and light’. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1831 Constable had one of Turner's paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own.

At the Royal Academy exhibition the following year Constable and Turner were assigned places alongside each other in one of the main galleries. Constable had been working on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for fifteen years. In the days before the exhibition, artists were allowed to apply a final coat to their paintings as they hung on the gallery walls. And so Constable painstakingly set about his finishing touches.

Turner was showing a sombre seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a storm,‘Helvoetsluys’. Just before the exhibition opened, he realised his work suffered by comparison with Constable’s. And so he marched in and painted a small bright red buoy in the middle of his canvas. It drew the eye, creating a compelling contrast with the green sea around it. Turner left without saying a word.

Constable was incensed.

‘He has been here and fired a gun.’

The critics agreed that Turner’s simpler, more restrained work made ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ look complex, fussy and ostentatious. The exhibition was a disaster for Constable.

There’s a lesson for the marketing world here.

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

You may be going merrily about your business, doing a decent job, progressing steadily along the tracks. Your brand may be well regarded by consumers. Everything may be OK.

But then out of left field the competition does something radical that rewrites the rules; that reframes the market; that changes the way you’re viewed. Suddenly you no longer seem quite so relevant. You appear a little off the pace, a little out of sorts. Suddenly you look like yesterday’s brand.

BA was solidly respectable, thoroughly dependable. And then irreverent Virgin arrived on the scene and made it somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. Levi’s was cool and contemporary. And then dissident Diesel appeared and made it safe and conventional. Orange made Vodafone feel corporate. Apple made Microsoft appear square. Sipsmith made Gordon's look dreary. Fever-Tree made Schweppes taste sweet. Eat made Pret seem over-sauced. And so on and so forth.

We should watch out for the seemingly insignificant red buoy that appears out of left field; the subtle touch of the brush that at a stroke makes us seem less relevant. We should beware being repositioned by the competition.

When we play it safe, we leave space for others to shine. If we want to be a leadership brand, we have to lead.

 

'When least expected,
Fate stumbles in.
Bringing light to the darkness,
Oh, what a friend.
I needed someone to call my own.
Suddenly, out of left field
Out of left field, out of left field
Love came along.’

Percy Sledge, 'Out of Left Field' (Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham)

No. 187

‘The Child Must Banish the Father’: Mark Rothko and Intergenerational Strife

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

‘Movement is everything. Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm. To live is to move.’

There’s a splendid production of the 2009 play ‘Red’ by John Logan running at the Wyndham Theatre in London (until 28 July).

It is 1958-59. Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the glamorous Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. In his paint-splattered Bowery studio he creates his work surrounded by whisky bottles, canvases, turpentine and brushes; in low light; to the sounds of Schubert and Mozart.

Rothko strives to convey raw truth, real feeling and pure thought - in maroon, dark red and black. His luminous paintings pulse with introspection, intensity and intellectual energy. He approaches his craft with high seriousness.

‘People like me… My contemporaries, my colleagues…Those painters who came up with me. We all had one thing in common…We understood the importance of seriousness.’

Rothko explains to his young assistant that he and his fellow Abstract Expressionists achieved their dominance of the post-war art scene by sweeping aside the previous generation.

‘We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture now…The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’

Rothko’s assistant, however, is a fan of the emergent Pop Art movement; of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He challenges Rothko’s worldview.

‘Not everything needs to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting needs to rip your guts out and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or soup can or comic book!’

Rothko is unimpressed.

‘You know the problem with those painters? It’s exactly what you said: they are painting for this moment, right now. And that’s all. It’s nothing but zeitgeist art. Completely temporal, completely disposable, like Kleenex.’

Rothko’s frustration with Pop Art extends to the culture that has created and celebrated it. He rages against the triviality of modern life.

‘‘Pretty.’ ’Beautiful.’ ’Nice.’ ’Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny. It’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!...How are you?...How was your day? How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.’

The argument gets personal. Rothko’s assistant points out that the artist’s seriousness and self-importance don’t sit well with his latest commission.

‘The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption.’

For me these bitter exchanges resonate with the intergenerational strife that we often encounter today in work and broader society. Each age cohort seems eager to celebrate its own triumphs, but reluctant to recognize the virtues of the cohort beneath them.

My own generation, born in the ‘60s, rejoices in punk’s destruction of ‘70s lethargy and hippy self-indulgence. We lionize our mix-tapes, style tribes, GTIs and political engagement. We rejoice in our hedonistic teens and our industrious twenties.

Yet, we moan about Millennials and make sarcastic remarks about Snowflakes. We complain about young people’s technology addiction and attention deficit disorders; their narcissism, impatience and indifference; the artisanal gins and avocado on toast; no-platforming and eating on public transport.

The younger generation can quite rightly retort with ‘80s materialism, sexism and sartorial blunders; the environmental apathy and the plain good fortune of the property market. They can coin their own labels: Centrist Dads and Gammons and so forth.

This intergenerational squabbling gets us nowhere. It betrays an inability to see life through anything other than the prism of our own experience.

Surely each generation is equal but different. One generation dances with their feet; the other dances with their hands. One wears white socks at the gym; the other wears black. One watches TV together; the other watches phones together.

I have been in awe of modern youth’s ability to diminish the gap between thought and action; their entrepreneurial spirit and technical facility; their comfort with diversity and their capacity to keep life and work in balance. They’re just as political, but they care about different issues. They’re just as stylish, but in skinnier jeans.

OK. Their music is not as good…

In the field of commerce the businesses that thrive are those that truly trust and enable the younger generation; that integrate old and new skills; that recognise the imperative of change. Because if a company fails to embrace generational difference, then eventually 'the child will banish the father.’ And the mother too.

Towards the end of ‘Red’ Rothko has a change of heart. After a dispiriting trip to the Four Seasons restaurant, he backs out of the lucrative commission. And he dismisses his assistant with something approaching good grace.

‘Listen, kid, you don’t need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life…You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off… Make something new.’

No. 183