Bonnard: Liberating Oneself from the Literal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He who sings is not always happy.’

Indeed Bonnard seems somewhat removed - a man withdrawn, observing his home and home-life from a distance, through a window or doorway, across a table; through bands of colour, layers of memory.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

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

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

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

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

There is a lesson for us all here.

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

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

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


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

No. 217

‘The Same, But Grey’: Pablo Picasso on How To Handle a Mid-Life Crisis

Pablo Picasso, The Dream

Pablo Picasso, The Dream

A few years back, as I was approaching 50, I visited the Post Office to renew my driving licence. I handed my expired licence, along with the new form and fresh photos, to the polite Sikh man behind the counter. He compared the new photo with the old, laughed and said:
‘The same, but grey.’

This in many ways captured how I felt about being middle-aged.

I knew deep down I was the same person as the awkward freckled teenager who slapped coconut oil in his hair and wore white towelling socks with Romford cut-downs. I knew I was the same as the twenty-something who ate off paper plates, made soul mix-tapes and worshipped at the altar of conversation; the same as the industrious thirty-year-old, the pedestrian centre back who learned to love Bach, Beckett and ballet.

But I knew too that I was grey. My knees creaked. My back was playing up. I couldn’t read restaurant menus or hear discussions in crowded bars. I was increasingly sentimental, nostalgic and stubborn. What’s more, I was inclined to talk about bin strategy, travel routes and parking permits at any opportunity.

When we reach 50 we have to come to terms with the fact that we have more years behind us than ahead of us; that we’re not quite as in touch as we once were; that our cohort is no longer the cultural centre of gravity; that we are the same, but grey.

So how should we deal with it?

'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'
Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

I recently attended an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work from the year 1932, when he had just turned 50 (Tate Modern, until 9 September).

By 1932 Picasso was successful, famous and wealthy. He lived a life of bourgeois respectability with his wife and son in his grand Paris apartment. He wore tailored suits and had a chauffeur-driven car. He was planning the first major retrospective of his work.

But Picasso was not entirely comfortable with his lot. He didn’t appreciate that the critics and art establishment were looking elsewhere for innovation and new ideas. His marriage was strained, and over the last five years he had been in a secret relationship with a much younger woman, Marie-Therese Walter. Moreover, being proud of his humble roots, he struggled to make sense of his wealth:

'I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money.'

Picasso was middle-aged. His life was characterised by responsibility, conformity and comfort; by nostalgia, self-justification and pining for lost youth. And he was curiously dissatisfied with it all.

So far, so conventional.

But Picasso had an outlet for his frustrations and anxieties: his art. He established a new studio above his Paris apartment, and he bought a mansion house in Normandy where he could experiment with sculpture. He set about an extraordinary period of industry and creativity.

'Everything you can imagine is real.’

Picasso painted Walter sitting, sleeping and swimming; surrounded by plants, busts and bowls of fruit; in shadows and reflections; bright, colourful images in purple, blue and gold; vibrant two-dimensional portraits like playing cards. He deconstructed and reassembled her; abstracted, distorted and fragmented the female form. There were curved limbs, breasts, hips and hands; a heart-shaped head. Mouths became slits; faces buttons. Walter melted into a squid.

Incredibly prolific, Picasso switched seamlessly between painting, drawing and sculpture, producing new ideas every day, creating work in series: surrealist studies; goddesses attended by Grecian fauns; crucifixions; geometric human forms; a village in the rain; and, at the end of the year, the rescue of a drowning woman.

Picasso observed: ‘The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.’

But this was no ordinary diary. It was a precise catalogue of a man’s passions, fears and fantasies. Sometimes his work was sensuous, erotic. Sometimes it was disturbing, unsettling. His penis never seemed too far away. Indeed in September of that year, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, on seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s work, described it as almost schizophrenic in its variety of styles. He declared that the artist’s 'psychic problems … are in every respect analogous to that of my patients.’

One can’t help concluding that Picasso’s inner turmoil in 1932 fuelled his phenomenal creative output; and indeed that his phenomenal creative output helped calm his inner turmoil.

Of course by no means did 1932 entirely solve Picasso’s problems. A couple of years later, his marriage disintegrated after Walter bore him a child. And he became increasingly troubled by the deteriorating political and economic situation in Europe and in his native Spain.

Nonetheless 1932 did produce a body of work that put Picasso right back in the vanguard of contemporary art – which is where he needed to be. He was moving forwards, not back. And critics subsequently dubbed this his ‘year of wonders.’

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all here.

If we are faced with our own mid-life crisis - with the threat of increasing comfort and diminishing relevance - we should not go looking for new relationships, buying embarrassing cars, wearing inappropriate fashion. Rather we should keep our nose to the grindstone. We should actively engage with life and culture - by designing, composing and inventing; by writing, making and building; by creating something useful, beautiful, interesting, memorable.

As Picasso observed: 'Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.’

'Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

 Dylan Thomas, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night'

No. 192

‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Edvard Munch

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’

Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.

 

Vilhelm Hammershoi

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity. They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’

First published BBH Labs: 10/09/

No. 15