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

Lee Krasner: Listening To Your Inner Rhythm

Lee Krasner,  The Eye is the First Circle is

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circleis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krasner teaches us a number of lessons.

1. Follow Your Instincts

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

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

2. Get Stuck In 

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

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

3. Embrace Change

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

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

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

4. Revisit Your Past

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

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

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

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

5. Be Resilient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No. 237

Three Sisters: Dreams of Progress

The Wyndham Sisters by   John Singer Sargent 1899

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent 1899

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masha isn’t satisfied with this analysis:

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

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

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

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

Cover of first edition, published 1901

Cover of first edition, published 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

No. 228

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

I may have misjudged him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found myself rather liking this Gainsborough.

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

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

You just need to ask the right questions.

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

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

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

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

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

No. 212

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

Whistler’s Butterfly: Creative Talent Often Comes with a Sting in Its Tail

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‘[Whistler] is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler entirely concurs.’
Oscar Wilde

For much of his career the artist James McNeill Whistler inscribed his work with a stylised butterfly monogram based on his JW initials. He designed the device with elegant wings and curved antennae. And in time he gave it a barbed tail.

In many ways Whistler’s butterfly represented his own talent and personality. He was an articulate, charismatic, independent spirit, who could create extraordinary beauty. But his gifts came hand-in-hand with vanity and a sharp tongue.

‘I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateurs for three, or the cry of the critic for five.’

Born in 1834 to prosperous parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, in his youth Whistler travelled to Russia and England. He was educated (somewhat reluctantly) at West Point, studied art in Paris and settled in London in 1859.

Whistler immediately found himself at odds with the art establishment. He disliked the narrative and naturalism that were the order of the day. He detested the flattery and sentiment to which Victorian audiences were so partial. He rejected the conventional notion that art had a moral or social function. Rather he believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’

Working from a limited colour palette, with balanced composition, Whistler sought to achieve ‘tonal harmony’. He often compared his work with music. He painted subdued, thoughtful, full-length portraits. He painted dreamy ‘nocturnes’ of the Thames at rest. He painted his mother in profile, seated, in an austere black dress, her white bonnet atop neat grey hair, her lace-cuffed hands clasping a handkerchief.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Whistler was small of stature, but large of personality. He dressed like a dandy, cultivated a curly moustache and sported a monocle. He enjoyed the Bohemian life, parties and entertaining. And he found a natural soul mate in Oscar Wilde.

Wilde: ‘I wish I’d said that.’
Whistler: ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

In truth Whistler was rather arrogant and egotistical, something of a self-publicist.

‘I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary because heaven has granted me no offspring.’

He may have needed an audience, but he didn’t need friends. Whistler liked to pick fights.

‘I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.’

Whistler’s unconventional views and combustible temperament inevitably brought him into conflict with the forces of conservatism. Famously in 1877 he sued John Ruskin for libel after the critic had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’

At the trial Ruskin’s counsel queried the price Whistler had charged for ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket:’

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

‘The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’

‘No,’ replied Whistler, ‘I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

Whistler won the case, but was awarded only a farthing’s damages. The court costs bankrupted him.

Bitter experience didn’t convince Whistler to moderate his views. In 1890 he published ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’, a record of, and reflections on, the Ruskin case.  He dedicated it to ‘the rare few, who, early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the many.’

Whistler reminds us that creativity doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with congeniality; that innovators don’t always arrive with good table manners; that inspirational talent often has a sting in its tail.

Truly original thinkers must by definition be somewhat egotistical. They have to attach a particular value to their own distinctive worldview. They must feel comfortable with going against the crowd.

This creates dilemmas for Agency leadership. We want our creatives to break convention in their work, but we balk at too much unconventional behaviour in the office. We want them to express their individuality, but to do so within a team; to be emotional on paper, but rational in meetings. We want our talent to be creative, but we don’t want it to destroy too many things along the way.

I think leaders of creative businesses need to be tolerant. We have to accommodate a certain amount of vanity, misbehaviour, sharp words and rule breaking – if it is in the service of the work. But when eccentricity creates collateral damage; when it is self-serving and injurious to colleagues, then we have to step in. We have to draw the line at abuse of power.

Creative leaders must learn to harness talent to a commercial goal without diminishing its potency, and without compromising the company’s values. This is not easy. It requires judgement. And we must be ever mindful of Whistler’s own observation:

‘An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.’

No. 148

Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128

Me, Myself and I: What Kind of Self-Portrait Would We Paint for Our Brands?

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

There’s a myth that the first person to draw was a shepherd who traced his own shadow in the dust with his staff.  It’s telling perhaps that man’s first picture was of himself, a selfie. We are social animals, but we are also enormously self-centred.

This myth of ‘the invention of the art of drawing’ is captured in an engraving at an excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London. ‘Portrait of the Artist’ embraces all manner of images of artists, both self-portraits and pictures by colleagues, pupils and friends. (It runs until 17 April.)

One cannot help but be fascinated by self-portraits. Here we get to observe what other people see in the mirror; to assess how they present themselves to the world; to see how they want to be seen.

There were practical reasons for artists to engage in self-portraiture. Drawing or painting oneself provided the opportunity to practice, experiment and explore; to consider different facial expressions, moods or pictorial styles. And the models came free.

But artists had other motivations. Sometimes they wanted to leave mementos of themselves for family and loved ones. Sometimes they sought to advertise their talent to potential clients. Sometimes they wanted to celebrate their status or success to a broader public. And sometimes they had a message to pass on.

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Artists’ choice of context and theme was often telling. Sebastiano Ricci painted himself attending to Christ teaching in the temple. Johan Zoffany recorded himself amongst his fellow Royal Academicians. Jan Steen depicted himself watching card-players in a pub. These artists were declaring their piety, their prestige, their lack of pretension. Edwin Landseer portrayed himself with his dogs looking over his shoulder admiring his draftsmanship. He seems to be suggesting that they at least properly appreciate his work.

Occasionally artists would adopt mythical roles in order to signal a coded theme. Artemesia Gentileschi presented herself as the female personification of painting itself, La Pittura, a conceit unavailable to her male colleagues. Cristofano Allori portrayed himself as Holofernes beheaded by Judith. He modelled the figure of Judith on his former lover, ’La Mazzafirra,’ and had her mother standing by as the murderer’s assistant.

Of course, often self-portraiture expressed intense self-reflection. Lucian Freud peers out from the midst of deep shadows, his eyes dark with world-weary experience. Maria Cosway stares at us with arms folded as if to indicate her disappointment or disdain. And then there is Rembrandt. He put on costume and fancy dress, but painted himself with unflinching honesty: scrutinising the decay of age, the regret and yearning within.

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

One departs the exhibition with a strong sense of the complexity of the human psyche; of the layered self. When we look in the mirror we see many images of ourselves. We are self-centred and self-satisfied; self-doubting and self-deluding. We self-publish and self-promote. We are self-obsessed.

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

You would think that in the field of marketing and communication we would be well versed in the contours and complexities of the layered self. But, whilst many of us in the business tend towards solipsism, how often do we subject our own brands to proper scrutiny? How often do we assess them from within rather from without?

What kind of self-portrait would we paint for our own brands? Would we be puffed up and proud, keen to promote our prestige and status? Would we, like a teenager taking a selfie, betray our own fickle airs and shallow affectations? Or would we, like Rembrandt, be honest, searching and direct?

Perhaps we too should occasionally take a long hard look in the mirror.

 

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Tell me mirror what is wrong?
Can it be my De La clothes?
Or is it just my De La song?
It’s just me, myself and I.
It’s just me, myself and I.’

De La Soul, Me, Myself and I

 

No. 117