Misplaced ‘Purposeful Marketing’ is Annoying

May 11, 2015 / Arts and Culture

By Ivo Roefs

It’s as if a new race has begun: Who is the new champion in social involvement? In many cases, the contenders aren’t credible at all.

Every agency, every awards organisation and every judge has asked themselves, or has been posed, the following question at least once: which campaigns have a good chance of winning?

As I was pondering this question, I caught myself thinking: “I bet it’ll be a charity again”. Because whichever awards festival you look at, charities are always among the winners.

Also, I recently attended a meeting on “being a meaningful brand” – a topic that was immediately linked to supporting social themes or sponsoring charities.

And this led me to a feeling of annoyance about our trade, which I’ve been harbouring for a while now. It is a growing annoyance – and it is an annoyance that I feel is actually more interesting than speculating on who will take the stage at the end of this event [The SpinAwards in Amasterdam].

So whether you like it or not, I’ll be discussing this annoyance with you, and leave you to make up your own minds on who the winners will be. My tip, then: charities.

Charities have been very successful in the past few years – not only on stage and at awards festivals, but also in the marketing plans for a wide variety of brands. It’s almost as if a new race has begun: which brand distributes its sponsorship budget most nobly? Who is the champion of social involvement?

You may be thinking: how can Roefs possibly have a problem with this? Isn’t it a good thing that companies and brands are finally assuming some responsibility in this field? Shouldn’t I be happy for the good souls who help seals and fight illiteracy, now that a big company has finally given them a proper budget to help them do their good deeds? For the environmental crusaders, who owe their continued existence to a soap factory and a coal-burning energy corporation? Let me tell you: I’m very happy for them!

But let me tell you this as well: in many cases, such alliances lack all credibility for me. Which is why I think that this entire trend is overshooting its mark, however well-intentioned it may be.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand where it all comes from. The economic crisis has triggered a collective allergy to commerciality. “Greed is good” – Gordon Gekko’s motto in Wall Street – has become a contaminated phrase. Because that same greed has now thrown our economy into the deep end. In the 1980s and 1990s, “big and successful” was a compliment. Now it just makes many consumers suspicious. We see that every day, in studies. And we hear it in focus groups.

As always in hard times, people are looking for hope, faith and trust. Which has led many brands to think: “Let’s do something with CSR” – corporate social responsibility. That’s the modern thing to do! That’s what consumers want us to do! And just like that, under the banner of “purposeful marketing” and “corporate social responsibility”, an entirely new field has arisen in our trade.

In my mind, things usually get stuck on those two words: “purpose” and “responsibility”.
Not because I don’t think brands can have a purpose or be responsible – I think they can.
But what I see is that most brands forgo that essential first step: defining what their own purpose is.

Because it is only if you’ve figured that out – if you have seriously examined and stated what your brand’s passion really is – that you can sponsor a social purpose in a credible and passionate way. And feel truly responsible for it.

Let me give you a few examples. If Procter & Gamble calls itself  “proud sponsor of moms”, I believe it without reservation. Because moms, that’s P&G’s bread and butter. Moms – that’s who they make products for. They spend all their days thinking about moms, if all is well. So that’s a credible obsession and responsibility for that company: empowering mothers.

Here’s another example. American Express’s “Small Business Saturday” – I get it. Amex wants to be a meaningful partner to small-business owners and it used that promotion to provide relevance to that group.

These are all examples that were conceived from a thorough understanding of what these brands want to represent. This is a completely different proposition from simply tagging your budget and logo onto a random charity or social theme, and then hoping that that will help you rise on parameters like “noble”, “involved” and “sympathetic”.

Just to be clear: this story is not about those charities that manage to do well under their own steam. It’s a very good thing for our trade to use its creativity for non-commercial ends every now and then. (Even though – and I am wording this carefully on purpose – you have to be careful not to mix up your own interests with your client’s.)

The point is – and this is where I’ll finally mention some examples – that I really do not see what the connection is between some big organisations and the social theme they are connected with. Other than, of course, opportunistically pushing brand awareness.

It may be superfluous, but I’d like to draw your attention to the “Why”, “What” and “How” from Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. If you do not know this story, you are one of the very last to discover it, and I encourage you to look it up on YouTube as soon as I finish this introduction. 

Every brand should place itself in Simon Sinek’s place and discover what the real “Why” of its existence is – before coming up with a social theme that the brand can and should connect to in a credible way.

What is the true purpose of your brand? What is the obsession that is real and credible?

Which is not the same as asking: which obsession can we benefit from today? Or: let’s do something really cool with this for a few months, and then move on to the next thing. Because if you really believe in your convictions, and if you feel responsible as a brand – that implies a long-term commitment, not a temporary campaign theme. If a conviction, a theme, a topic does NOT flow through a brand’s veins, then that brand should simply stay away from it.

I fear that this story of mine may have caused some restlessness at the boards of a lot of foundations – and that is not something I set out to do. I think every committee and every social theme deserves to have a sponsor – one that is as generous as possible.

But such collaborations must be based on a deeper meaning, one that goes beyond jumping on the latest bandwagon. Because if sponsoring is a temporary fad, then the charity will not benefit from it in the long term.

And I do not believe that any brand ever benefitted from doing things that were not credible.
So let me end with an appeal. And let me say right from the start: this is not a moral appeal, but one based on professional conviction. Let us resolve to reward ideas and strategies that are truly aligned with a brand’s “why”. And not ideas that simply happen to reflect a social topic that is fashionable.


Ivo Roefs is Co-CEO at DDB & Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam.

This is a translation of an article originally published on Adformatie.

The Anonymous Rep

February 5, 2015 / Arts and Culture

By Anonymous

One production company's Directors' Rep gets honest about the rights and wrongs of the advertising industry.

When I was asked to spill the beans on the advertising industry from my perspective with a promise of anonymity, apart from the obvious cathartic effect bitching tends to achieve, I thought it could also be a good opportunity to try to set a few misconceptions straight about directors' reps and our role in the industry.

The Good

Let's get into it then. Respect. Most of the reps I know have nothing but admiration and respect for almost everyone in the industry. I'm honoured to have met some of the most creative, friendly and sociable people on the planet. If a rep doesn't love their job - even the cold calling bit - they should get a new job! I think I've got one of the best jobs in the industry.

The best reps love the industry, they love creativity and their passion lies somewhere on the commercial side of production. We gain satisfaction from helping to visualise often vague descriptions and developing 'hair-brained' ideas; pairing up boards with the perfect talent; seeing a job on delivery day with the satisfaction and knowledge that the end product is partly down to our initial creative thinking, our match making and our ability to respond to a brief.

We love to help agency producers. When I show my reels to a single producer or a room full of hungry creatives I take pride in my offering of knowledge and hope our work can help inspire or solve their next creative brief. Of course, there's the more glamorous social side too: events and lunches, Cannes and trips to Amsterdam. I could do without the trips to Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, but even these trips can be eventful and a warm change from the sometimes abrupt and overly stressed London agencies.

The Bad

Sadly respect isn't always reciprocated. One doesn't expect respect for nothing but, not being given the chance to earn respect – indeed, to be lied to, or worse, strung along by a busy producer that has lost their basic skills of communication and common courtesy – is something that is all too common.

The classic is: “call back next week”, knowing full well they're on holiday or on a three-month shoot in Siberia. That’s nothing though, I’ve had three meetings cancelled by the same producer while I’ve been waiting in their reception after I’ve confirmed with them that morning that we’re still on! Perhaps they've had a bad experience with a rep in the past and think this is acceptable. Well it's not. In fact, whoever you are, it is just plain rude to waste people’s time like that and karma has a funny way of turning up and biting you in the arse.

Don't forget, reps know a lot of creative directors and heads of TV. We love to chinwag, we love hearing the dirt and we love dishing the dirt (like did ya hear about the Freelance Creative that pissed all over the wall at the [redacted] party?) Let's hope that dirt isn't you (Don’t worry we don’t make shit up. There’s way too much good shit to talk about).

Oh yeah, reps love to gossip. You can guarantee we hear about who's leaving where and who's sleeping with who before Campaign (or their wives) have a Scooby. Always makes me laugh when I have to sign an NDA for some 'top secret', usually not-that-great campaign – like who am I going to tell? I should be signing NDAs before lunches.

Here's how to avoid the 'dirt': Just tell us you're not looking for anything, you're up against it, or your boss is shit and has told you to stop seeing new work, even if it is award winning and may be the key to sending your next campaign stratospheric. Or “I'm sorry, I JUST DONT HAVE TIME!” The truth will definitely earn you respect and that rep will do whatever you ask. They will trust you. We're here to help you too, we're a fun lovin' creative resource that can take you out for lunch and gossip with you about the industry.

Give me the script please...

I know this isn't always possible but, getting a beyond vague description of what you're looking for is a monumental waste of everyone's time. Think about what you want, work out ways to describe it and maybe try and throw in a reference – if you don't have a script. 

Oh and if you ask for a reel please watch it. We spend time crafting the right work in the right order to try and help you find a match. Thanks to modern technology we know when you haven’t!

The Ugly

It's not the fucking Oscars! OK, I admit it, the ability to influence millions of people is a hell of a gift. I'll hand it to the best creative teams, sometimes the way you guys think is so on the money, so obviously brilliant, the rest of us kick ourselves for not being able to think like that. But let's remember something, for the most part we’re helping the rich get richer. We aim to manipulate behaviour and thought, often not for the greater good. Sometimes it is for the greater good and that's admirable (reps love to get those scripts in!).

We're not exactly an industry of saints though. One thing that disturbs me greatly in our industry is the extent to which excess is flaunted so crudely, at Cannes particularly, and often lots of the awards ceremonies and events across the year. I think it’s boring to pinpoint certain people’s behaviour around such events because often it is so utterly vulgar I am ashamed to write about it. For the record I try to stay sober, so I remember everything. The only thing I will say is just because you won a Cannes Lions Gold does not mean you are a god who everyone will sleep with.

On a very serious note. Vanity projects are destroying production companies. There are occasions where we’ve spent days or weeks crafting a pitch, sometimes spending thousands of pounds, only to find out the client hasn’t bought the idea. Should we start charging agencies or ego driven creatives for this costly inconvenience? It might not seem like a problem to some of you, but if you don’t tell us it’s a “crazy idea the client hasn’t signed off” that’s not exactly fair as it drains our resources for a real pitch we for a real job. We may not spend as much money on it too for a start. And it will help your credibility when you come to us with a real script for a real job. I’m not saying don’t come to us with creative ideas, I’m just saying be honest please.

The Showdown

I don’t really enjoy ‘dishing the dirt’. It’s making me depressed (not a good trait in a rep). So I will end on this: This IS a fabulous industry full of talented people. There are a few bad’uns but there are a few bad reps too. My name’s ‘The Anonymous Rep’. If you’re still reading this I apologise for any offence I may have caused and suggest you go to bed.

Goodnight, sweet dreams and RESPECT.

The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery, Frieze Masters

November 30, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

The Nahmads - more interesting than your family.

The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery

Frieze Masters

Regents Park


There was really only one stand worth a visit in the whole of this travelling circus called Frieze and Frieze Masters in October, amongst the spray-tans, Armani suits and Hindmarch handbags, and that was the Helly Nahmad Gallery’s offering called The Collector. This was thinking outside conventional gallery precepts, in that it was more like a film set or a piece of theatre. Visitors could walk around this ‘apartment’ from Paris 1968, peer into the sitting room, a study, the bedroom and the small kitchen, with the sink piled up with dirty dishes and marvel at the attention to detail, even down to cinema ticket stubs, receipts, overflowing ashtrays, with Gitanes butts, naturellement, and piles of Paris Match, Le Monde and L’Oeil, the French arty mag. There were stacks of period newspapers, catalogues from auction houses and exhibitions on the floor and tables, postcards, photographs and political posters pinned to the wall, monographs, catalogues raisonnés, art books and vinyl records packed into bookshelves.

On the two small televisions looped black and white Truffaut and Godard films were playing, interspersed with shots of Brigitte Bardot, newsreel clips from the Paris student riots of ‘68 and the Tour de France, with Miles Davis hauntingly mixed with Les Swingle Singers, and the soundtrack from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

We were told the apartment belonged to an obsessive and imaginary collector. As Helly Nahmad said in his introduction, “Our Collector is a complex character with a completely unique [sic] personality. A passionate, brilliant, eccentric and humble man. Living in post-war Milan and then Paris, he lives and breathes art.”

The man who breathed life into the installation was production designer Robin Brown, who was responsible for a cute Bonnie and Clyde period commercial for Entenmann's cakes. In amongst this deep-litter disarray were hanging paintings by Picasso, Miró, Morandi, Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Magritte and Dali. On a bedside table, there were three striding Giacometti figures, as casual as you like.

The Nahmad family descended from a prosperous banker, Hillel, from Aleppo, Syria, where he lived until just after the second World War. Following anti-Jewish violence in 1947, he moved to Beirut, and when the situation there became difficult, he took his three sons, Joseph, Ezra and David, to Milan in the early 1960s. All three brothers ended up making a fortune from art. With the emergence of the Red Brigade in the 1970s, Milan was perceived as too dangerous, and the family moved again. Joseph and Ezra headed for Monaco, and David to New York.

Today, their art inventory takes up 15,000 square feet of a duty-free building next to Geneva’s international airport. It is estimated that the warehouse in 2007 contained between 4,500 and 5,000 works of art, worth between $3-4 billion at the time, according to Forbes, including 300 Picasso’s, worth some $900 million. According to Christopher Burge, Christie’s New York chairman, they have sold more works of art than anybody alive. They have bought and sold art on a massive scale over the years, including Morandi’s Natura Morta and a Picasso portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, for $2.6m, which they sold in 2007 for $30.6m. Other auction purchases for their collection include Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La Dormeuse au Miroir for $5.5m in 1990, Monet’s Le Palais Contarini for $4.2m in 1996 and Les Canotiers à Argenteuil for $9m in 1998, now valued at $40 million. To cap it all, they paid $60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 for Kazimir Malevich’s 1916 Suprematist Composition. Léger’s Still Life went to the Nahmad family for $7.9m, while Kandinsky’s Study for Improvisation 3 was sold to them for $16.9 million at Christie’s in 2008.

Helly’s cousin, son of David, also called Helly, (confused?) operated the Helly Nahmad Gallery out of the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and in April this year, in connection with his leadership role in the operation of a high-stakes illegal sports gambling business and money laundering, he was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to one year and one day; as if he didn’t have enough money. He is now $6.4 million lighter, as that was the extent of his fine, and all his right, title, and interest in Carnaval à Nice by Raoul Dufy, went to the United States, as the painting was involved in a scam to con a British model, who wanted to ‘lose’ some earnings in the Bahamas.

He and professional poker player Illya Trincher, who was also fined $6.4 million, operated a nationwide illegal gambling business in New York City and Los Angeles that catered primarily to multi-millionaire and billionaire clients, including Russian gang bosses and Hollywood film stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio. As part of this business, the organization ran a high-stakes, illegal sportsbook that utilized several online gambling websites operating illegally in the United States, which made millions of dollars of sports bets each year. Nahmad was the primary source of financing for the illegal gambling business, and he was entitled to a substantial share of its profits.

The Nahmad family story would itself make a terrific film, a cross between Catch Me If You Can and Citizen Kane, maybe starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Helly, with Christopher Walken as his father? At least one set has already been designed.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Masterpiece 2014 London at the Chelsea Royal Hospital

September 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Sadly art is now all about money, as this event proved conclusively.

This is the fifth year of Masterpiece, otherwise known as the ‘Unaffordable Art Fair.’ The opening night saw a large sparkle of guests, dealers, jeunesse dorée, hangers-on, collectors, art lovers and euro-trash milling about.

They hung around the curtains from whence poor, harassed girls emerged carrying salvers of canapés. They only made it a few yards before the gannets pounced and devoured the lot.

Could the popularity of this event be down to the fact that it trumpets the fact that it has become the premier antiques and art fair in the UK, or could it be the enormous amount of Ruinart Champagne on tap? A bit of both, one suspects. Certainly, they invite la crème de la crème from around the world, selling clocks and watches, jewellery, porcelain, furniture, antiquarian books, sculpture, paintings, prints, photographs, maps and folk art.

Amongst all these recherché objects is a perfectly ordinary Maserati, which one can see in their showroom in the Old Brompton Road, so why has it been elevated to the status of ‘art’? It’s a car! Now a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic could be labeled ‘art’, but not a Quattroporte, which is simply Italian for four-door saloon.

If you want to buy a Lowry for £200,000 or a scaled-down cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, for quite a few hundred thousand, this is the place for you. Last November, a 3-foot-high ‘lifetime’ cast of The Kiss sold at Christie’s New York for more than $6m, more than four times its lower estimate; although the current record paid for a Rodin bronze is $19m, for a 6-foot Eve.

This fair is all about money. And class, although, there was a stack of very expensive bling on view, as well. The main sponsor was, after all, RBS Wealth Management, which underlines the notion that art is now all about money. In true fat-cattery fashion, there is even an obnoxious, high-gloss supplement called How to Spend It, published by the FT, telling their readership what to invest in, and nothing about the quality or integrity of the ‘art’. Once it was claret, then classic cars, now paintings and sculpture.

Rob and Nick Carter are young masters of creating digital images from Old Masters. Previously, they took Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s Vase With Flowers in a Window and somehow three-dimensionalised it. For Masterpiece they produced a version of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, using a digitalised background, with day turning imperceptibly into night, into which they have placed a breathing, twitching model; unfortunately, this enhanced being has lost the innocent charm of the original, and resembles more an airbrushed Playmate, or a Vargas painting.

More successful is Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s own masterpiece. Created from the remains of mummified animals, which have been cast in solid sterling silver, it creates a silhouette portrait of the artists on the blank wall behind when illuminated from the front.

If one wanted something a little older, then a visit to Ariadne Galleries from New York would have revealed a Head of a Cycladic Idol, a beautifully simple Greek stone carving dated c.2500 BC from the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean, selling for many millions.

Both Henry Moore and Constantin Brâncuși were strongly influenced by Cycladic sculpture, and although not seen at Masterpiece, a Brâncuși head will still attract some of the highest prices of any sculptor, too rich even for this fair.

Rolls Royce car-dealers used to respond to the question, ‘How much is it, then?’ with a snotty ‘If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, sir’, which is why presumably many pieces were labelled POA, or maybe because many stall-holders were prepared to do a deal.

Robert Young was very much in evidence, with his stylish stand selling folk art, which ranged from painted peasant furniture, trade signs and treen to George Smart fabric collages and old, Welsh oak Windsor chairs. As one of the world experts on this difficult-to-categorise genre, he recently advised Tate Britain on their widely-acclaimed British Folk Art exhibition, reviewed in the June edition of this paper.

Sladmore had not one, but two, stands this year, one focussing on Nic Fiddian Green and his ubiquitous horse’s heads, bending down to drink, and the other devoted to such modern sculptors as Rembrandt Bugatti, who had a delightful Flamingo on view.

If Masterpiece regards itself as part of the ‘Season’, it has to stand alongside the RA Summer Show and Henley Royal Regatta. Adrian Sassoon had for sale an astonishing work of madness by Giovanni Corvaja, a hat, hand-crafted entirely from 160km of gold wire. The headpiece, priced at £350,000, took over 2,500 hours to make, with each of the 5 million hand-hammered gold wires being drawn through a diamond. That would certainly have turned heads at Royal Ascot.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


The Years of La Dolce Vita

May 20, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant luxuriates in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Years of La Dolce Vita
Estorick Collection
39a Canonbury Square,
 N1 2AN

Until 29 June 2014
Admission £5 

Over at the V&A they have a somewhat unglamorous show called The Glamour
 of Italian Fashion, but if it’s real fascino you are after, then the Estorick has it in spades, and you can luxuriate in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paparazzo was originally the name of a character in Fellini’s 1960 seminal film La Dolce Vita, played by Walter Santesso, who focused on the hedonists, partygoers 
and sybarites in Rome at that time.
The man who inspired the character
 was actually an amalgam of photo-journalists, including Marcello Geppetti.

In real life, as opposed to reel life, the film stars, attracted by the relative inexpensiveness of Cinecittà were seen
 to be out and about the Eternal City, frequenting the restaurants, bars and night clubs of the exclusive Via Veneto and Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona. Rino Barillari and Felice Qinto were fellow snappers, and there exists an uncredited photo of Rino being thumped by an American actor Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield’s husband, while top-model Vatussa Vitta smacks him with her purse. So the paparazzi being ‘papped.’

Geppeti had better luck when he shot Franco Nero smacking poor, old Rino again at the Trevi Fountain, scene of the most famous scene in La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg cavorts in a black velvet dress with no visible means of support. The Swedish bombshell made her home in Rome after the success of the Fellini film, and became fodder for the Italian press,
 and there is a photo of her driving her Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster in Rome in 1962 taken by Geppeti. She also attacked a couple of paparazzi, including Geppeti, firstly with a bow and arrow and then unladylike fists.

During this period, European actors like Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon and Sophia Lauren mixed with big Hollywood stars, like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Liz Taylor and were all in Rome, in full public view, to be snapped at will
 in what became known as ‘an open-air film-set’. Taylor and Richard Burton were famously snapped by Gepetti having a snog on a boat in Ischia off 
the Amalfi Coast, where the scenes on Cleopatra’s barge were shot.

There were other candid photos of Elizabeth Taylor sunbathing and swimming, taken by a ‘proper’ celebrity portrait photographer, Bert Stern. Arturo Zavattini worked 
as a cameraman for many great Italian directors including Vittorio De Sica, 
and produced some fascinating behind-the-scenes photographs on the set of La Dolce Vita, with Fellini’s full co-operation and consent.

There is, of course, an unsavoury side to this fascination with fame, which, ironically, is central to the theme of La Dolce Vita, and spawned 
a whole industry of stalking, intrusion and invasion of celebs’ privacy. Not a 
lot has changed in the last 50 years, 
and some would argue that it has got a lot worse, culminating in the death of Princess Diana, after being hounded
 by the paps.

Some people court the attention, including Lady Di herself in her early years, and then cannot control the monster they have created, and 
there are rakes of magazines devoted 
to this unhealthy obsession. For all our ‘guilty pleasure’ we take in them, there is, however, a certain schadenfreude coursing through our veins when the biter gets bit. The name of Max Clifford springs
to mind, perhaps accompanied by the headline 'Gotcha!


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Martino Gamper & Haim Steinbach

April 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant reviews a pair of art exhibitions in disguise as IKEA product displays, or is it the other way around?

Martino Gamper: design is a state of mind &
Haim Steinbach: once again the world is flat
Serpentine Galleries
Until 21 April 2014
Admission free

Back in the late 1980s, posters advertising the V&A used the coy slogan ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. The new Sackler Gallery has a ‘caff ’ called The Magazine, in deference to the old gunpowder store from the Napoleonic Wars, to which it is attached. You can get away with anything, it seems, if you chant the mantra ‘traditional meets the modern’, a bit like parking a Lamborghini Veneno in the courtyard of a Palladian villa in Veneto.

So here we have a wannabe rural villa in the neoclassical style in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park with one of those cheap stackable plastic chairs you find in pub gardens parked alongside. But, let’s venture inside. This is an exhibition, curated by Gamper, about shelving - mostly shelving with objects on them.

Some shelves have no objects on them and they are none the worse for that; designs by Alvar Aalto, Franco Albini and Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis Group, and Gamper’s own, could easily be stand-alone pieces, although Vico Magistretti’s beechwood Nuvola Rossa contains objects selected and curated by Andrew Stafford, including indicators from an Austin A30, some string found at Brick Lane market in 1985 and a door release switch found amongst the demolished ruins of James Turrell’s 1999 Cornwall eclipse inspired installation, The Elliptic Eclipse. And so on. Wire whisks, wooden spoons, Ron Arad’s ping-pong paddle, a heater knob from a Peugeot 205, a cigar mould, a bell-shaped knitting needle gauge, yellow packing foam and, on an off-the-shelf IKEA shelving unit, a display bristling with tools.

There were über-trendy, goth attendants at every turn, as it would have been only too easy to trouser a bicycle light bracket found in London in the late 1990s or a zinc die-cast model of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow my tendency to purloin, liberate or simply steal an object was dampened by a lack of desire to own virtually any of them, apart from a few books and records collected by Simon Prosser to fill Dieter Rams’s natural anodised aluminium, powder-coated, pre-treated, mild steel 606 Universal Shelving System. A collection of bricks adorning Andrea Branzi’s laminated wood, ash wood, and crystal Gritti Bookcase was collected by Maki Suzaki from Carl Andre’s assistant in New York and brought back in his luggage, instead of the 36kg of reference books he had purchased at Strand Book Store on Broadway. Without a trace of irony, he states in the catalogue, ‘ This is why to me, they are not bricks, but books I have not read yet.’

I entered another, smaller gallery and liked quite a few of the objects on display, even to the point of pocketing one, but I then realised I had wandered into the shop.

Across the bridge that spans the short distance between the two galleries is, according to their web-site, ‘a theatre that interweaves history, art and adventure’. In the original gallery, and running concurrently with Gamper’s show, Haim Steinbach was displaying, amongst other things, objects on shelves. Also utilising everyday objects, Steinbach’s interest is in the fundamental practise of collecting by exploring the placing of objects on shelves. Déjà-vu, or what?

He abandoned Minimalist painting in the seventies, some pleasing examples of which are on display, and started to create works using linoleum. He also invited the public to lend their salt and pepper shakers to be displayed within his installation of modular building systems, i.e, shelves. Somewhat portentously, his participatory gesture reactivated the salt and pepper shakers within a new context and made the connection between the private and public sphere. He had also borrowed some perfectly nice Victorian doll’s houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood and displayed them high up in the gallery, out of reach, and almost out of sight. With a last glance at an Ajax cleaning can on a wood and plastic shelf, and a kitsch Little Orphan Annie plaster figurine atop another shelf made of Spiderman masks, I left and felt I had shortened my own shelf-life by a couple of hours.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Two exhibitions side by side: Castiglione and Gifted

December 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

From Genoese tantrums to offensive royal gifts.

The Queen's Gallery

Until 16 March 2014

I completely mis-read the invitation to the press viewing at the Queen’s Gallery as Castiglione: Lost Genius and Gifted. It transpired that there were two exhibitions, side by side, the first featuring the extraordinarily talented, but relatively unknown, Genoese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione; he was born in 1604, making him a contemporary of Anthony van Dyck, who also worked in Genoa, the French painter, Nicholas Poussin, and Rembrandt van Rijn. If Caravaggio was a bit of a bad boy, Castiglione must be regarded as Giacchino the Lad, forever getting into punch-ups and rows with his patrons, at one time throwing a hissy fit and slashing a painting commissioned by the Doge of the Republic of Genoa Giovanni Battista Lomellini to shreds. This was not a good diplomatic move, either in terms of his career, or making friends and influencing people. He subsequently fled his home town for, first of all, Rome, then Florence, Naples, Venice and Mantua. He was, in effect, una gazza ladra, borrowing styles and compositions from other painters, and in the case of his Study of Heads, he clearly ‘liberated’ two figures from Rembrandt’s Ecco Homo. He soon, however, developed not only his own style, but some innovative techniques, from painting in oil paints on paper to monotypes.

The large oil drawings are the colour of sanguine, a reddish-brown pastel favoured by Renaissance painters a hundred year earlier, but the effect has a fluidity and fuzziness achieved when the oil soaks into the unprimed paper, which he would apply spontaneously and directly without drawing first. These are some of the most striking images in the exhibition, including Circe with the companions of Odysseus transformed into animals and Omnia vanitas, but his etchings, particularly his large and small Oriental heads, have a dark, brooding quality, which mark him out as great exponent of the medium, although still not a patch on his Dutch contemporary Rembrandt. As well as facing a dozen lawsuits and shooting a fellow artist during an improvised theatrical event, he is said to have been in brawls, beaten up people and even attempted to throw his own sister off a roof. He suffered badly from gout, which may account for appalling temper, and he died intestate.  

The second exhibition features works on paper by the one hundred Royal Academicians, and given, or rather gifted, to HM The Queen during her Diamond Jubilee year, with the standard ranging from the inspired to the downright dreadful. At the top end, Humphrey Ocean’s Birds of Ngong is a simple, pared-down and charming gouache, while David Remfry once again demonstrates his ability to capture movement in Dancers, Havana. Ken Howard looks as though he may have simply delved into his unsold daubs in his plan-chest and come up with Florentine Farmhousedating from 1959. Lord Foster, still annoyingly referred to as Sir Norman, has the most feeble of drawings - School in Sierra Leone, 2009 - which stands out as being the worst work on paper in the entire two exhibitions, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Runner-up to his lordship is Tracey Emin, who has on offer a monoprint entitled HRH Royal Britania (sic); her appointment as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s famous quote about quitting song-writing: ‘Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Tom Phillips also must have ferreted about in his drawers to come up with a handily apposite Sixteen Appearances of the Union Jack from 1974, while David Hockney is one the few artists to do something specifically for Her Majesty Jubilee, a vivid iPad birthday card.

Some works have a tenuous connection to The Queen, the inclusion of Olwyn Bowey’s charcoal and watercolour drawing of a West Sussex pony, Susie (2007), being justified because she hoped that it would appeal to Her Majesty’s interest in horses. Grayson Perry may have given the excellent Reith Lectures this year on the subject of art, the first entitled ‘Democracy Has Bad Taste’, but his own royal offering is a piss-poor drawing of a motorcyle that he sent the motorbike builder to be custom-made for him. It is ‘the equivalent of the Queen’s glass carriage’, he adds spuriously. It is a mystery how the bike ever got made.

So, gifted? Well, not on the strength of what’s on show from the RA, whereas the exhibition Castiglione could have the descriptor ‘Extremely Gifted'.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

July 22, 2013 / Arts and Culture


An art exhibition with a strong, yeasty flavour.

Tate Britain

Until 20 October 2013

Admission £15


Both Marmite and Lowry have polarised Britain. Even the curators at the press view were more than a touch tentative, acknowledging there was a great divide between the devotees and the cynics, but hoping that this exhibition would persuade the doubters that there was more to Lowry than scores of little hunched figures on their way to work at the mill or scores of little hunched figures on their way home again. Or scores of little hunched figures at a football match, or a fairground, or a cricket match, or on a boating lake. Hundreds of them. Painting after painting, full of little hunched people, against a grim backdrop of mills, chimney stacks belching out smoke and flat skies. Lowry’s reputation has suffered over the years, particularly in his homeland, although he did have some critical success in France.

The organisers have included a number of French works by Pissarro, Utrillo, Seurat and his tutor at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette, whose paintings of urban life at night have a whiff of Atkinson Grimshaw, but without the spark. There is even van Gogh’s oil of the outskirts of Paris, painted the year before Lowry was born, which is a puzzling inclusion. By showing his attempts alongside these others only serves to highlight the fact that he was simply not a very good painter. There, I’ve said it. He is not a naïve painter, as he had formal training; it is not outsider art, as he was in the mainstream world of galleries and museums; he is not a folk artist. What is he? The merchandise in the shop at Tate Britain says it all - Lowry placemats, Lowry coasters, Lowry tea trays (rectangular or circular), Lowry mugs, Lowry tote bags, Lowry cufflinks and Lowry silk ties are all part and parcel of this, and most other ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions these days, but the inclusion of a ‘Lowry’ flat cap at £28, is either a postmodern ironic statement or just downright patronising. The chasm that has opened up between those for and against Lowry is nothing to do with elitism or snobbery, or a north-south divide, or working class versus the middle class. It is to do with quality, and, frankly, he just doesn’t cut the mustard.

One thing that stands out about his subjects in this exhibition, is that he never gets close up and personal, and his people are mostly little dots in the landscape, as he never actually engages with his subject, painting poverty, suffering and everyday life in Manchester from a distance. This is a shame, as some of his portraits have a rawness and wit about them, redolent of Bernard Buffet. One painting, however, 6, should have a dynamic evoking the tough world of construction in the city, and yet, we are offered another distant view of a few dark figures with ladders, wheelbarrows and shovels. Compare this feeble attempt to three paintings exhibited at the RA a few months ago by George Bellows, in which the American depicted slices of urban realism in his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, full of drama, dynanism and life. One painting from 1946 entitled Snow in Manchester is a rare example of a genuinely atmospheric composition, as is his Industrial Landscape, Wigan from 1925 in the gallery called Ruined Landscapes. Alongside is a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, who described ‘the lunar landscape of slag heaps’ and ‘a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’ Apart from these few successful portrayals of urban life, which includes the slightly quirky A Protest March from 1959, Lowry is pretty much destined to remain as placemat art, under the dinner plates of the British nation.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.