Ambiguity & Truth
Brand Identity Conference, AIGA, NYC
June 21, 2004
“Make it clear.” This fundamental assumption of communication would seem to be an attainable goal. Objectify the audience, understand their desires—appeal to their interests, eliminate the extraneous and presto “effective communication.”
Well, maybe not.
Some months ago I came upon a book by Leo Steinberg called the Incessant Last Supper, based on what may be the greatest single work of western painting, Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper. I’ve always loved the painting and have been looking at it for over a half-century beginning with a penny print I bought in kindergarten. In 1951, not many years after World War II, I visited it for the first time. It was in terrible shape, covered with mold and dirt and darkened by centuries of wear and bad restoration – Nevertheless the genius that Leonardo had invested in the work showed through and could not be denied. I had occasion to visit Milan frequently because I was doing a lot of work for Olivetti, at that time one of the most progressive of all European industrial concerns. In the eighties they initiated a complete restoration of the painting. Sadly, Olivetti is no longer an extraordinary example of how a corporation could be a good citizen as well as a profitable business, in fact it no longer exists. On one of my visits to Italy, they arranged for me to visit the painting in the process of being restored.
An attractive middle aged matron in a brown business suit was concentrating her attention on the face of Christ, high above the floor on a scaffold that had been constructed next to the painting. I say painting instead of fresco because, as many of you know, the Last Supper was an experiment in using untested pigments and binders that Leonardo was interested in. This is one of the reasons the work has fared so badly since it was first created. Dr. Pinin Brambilla Barcillon, who had the incredible responsibility of restoring the work single handedly, motioned me up the scaffold alongside her, inches away from the head of Christ, the centerpiece of the painting towards which all forms converged – I cannot describe my emotions as I realized the privilege of seeing Leonardo’s work from a vantage point that few will ever have.
The head was a pointillist composition of tiny dots and fragments of color that desolved into an abstraction as you got closer. Dr. Brambilla sat behind an optical instrument that illuminated one square inch of the painting’s surface at a time (a day’s work) as she looked through a magnifying lens – Her primary tools were a scalpel, a cotton swab, soap and water. Layer by layer she was cleaning away the dirt, waxes, varnish and over-painting of centuries. I tried to imagine what might be going through her mind, considering that if she took one extra swipe with her swab, the world’s most precious patch of paint could be irreversibly gone. As it was, only half the original pigment of Christ’s face existed once the various retouchings had been carefully removed. After revealing the real Leonardo fragment Dr. Brambilla would float in a thin neutral film of watercolor around it to unify the image.
As I looked at it, I realized that re-creating the image in the mind, out of the bits and pieces that remain, makes the work even more evocative than it might have been originally, a point I want to get to a bit later. I’ve returned to re-visit the sublime masterpiece at ground level many time since then and I urge all of you to do the same since the painting and the space it defines are unreproducible. The first thing you’ll observe is that your preconceptions about Leonardo’s style are challenged—it is not dark and defined by dramatic chiaroscuro: on the contrary it is more like an impressionist painting full of fragmented cerulean blue, white and pink. Despite all of this I never understood why the work was so compelling until I read Leo Steinberg’s remarkable book.
At this point some of you must be asking “Am I at the right keynote? What does this have to do with marketing or communication?” Bear with me.
The painting is a demonstration of how the brain works and a revelation of how belief conditions our senses of reality. It is not an attempt to illustrate one moment in time. That apparently was too simple for Leonardo. If you approach the work with the idea that it illustrates the words ‘one of you shall betray me’ all the figures in the painting assume poses that clearly respond to those words with shock honor and revulsion. One of the principles of Renaissance communication was that the position of a figure revealed character and emotion.
On the other hand if you shift the message you hold in your mind to the institution of the Eucharist, “Take this and eat: this is my body,” the meaning of the apostles’ gestures change before your eyes in response to this first call to communion. Think of it, two completely separate ideas in two different moments in time being simultaneously conveyed.
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Posted by ABOUT at 9:20 PM