Brands are using the work of the Old Masters.
The world’s auction houses, galleries and museums are worried. The values of works by Old Masters have dipped significantly during the past two years. The reason? Collectors and donors are losing their appetite for old masterpieces and are leaning instead toward contemporary art deemed more accessible. As the veneration for the past fades and money and attention turns to the new, the art world is now tasked with a challenge: how to make old European paintings relevant, exciting and accessible again? After all, even the Old Masters were once contemporary.
As the Western art world nervously contemplates the fate of its Rembrandts and Goyas, some brands have merrily accepted this challenge and are busy getting cozy with high culture. Businesses have begun printing sacred masterpieces on their products with abandon, blurring the line between art and artifact.
Now you can keep a Rembrandt action figure on your desk, carry the “Mona Lisa” on your laptop sleeve, drive your Lexus past Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Whether this has democratized art history or insultingly elevated handbags to an undeserved stature, the plain fact is, Old Masters are trending and hijacking the ephemeral.
Here are some current examples of brands bringing art history to the public, à la capitalism.
Art saves the day
The Canadian company Today is Art Day produces action figures in the likenesses of da Vinci, Vermeer, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Kahlo, complete with their own easels and mini-versions of their respective artworks. Called Art History Heroes, the message of this line of action figures is that painting is just as impressive as karate chops and lasers beams.
The miniature art legends are delightfully detailed — Kahlo holding her Surrealist heart; Van Gogh sporting his detachable ear; Vermeer with a tiny faux pearl earring in his palm.
The project aims to “develop a new kind of product for art history fans” and pay tribute to the greatest painters of all time. Its democratizing vision makes this proposition more than just manufacturing a plastic figurine; it’s taking the art world back from the elite.
Art is bagged
Last month, Jeff Koons launched “Masters II,” the second installment in his collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Artist collaborations are familiar territory for the luxury brand. But its latest collection of bags and accessories comes with a slight twist: a contemporary artist paying tribute to the artists before him. Koons — rather boldly and blasphemously — reproduced da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” and Fragonard’s “Girl with a Dog” on Louis Vuitton’s bags. The referenced artist’s name and a reconfigured Louis Vuitton monogram bearing Koons’ initials adorn each bag. An accompanying bag tag resembling Koons’ iconic balloon rabbit holds a nugget of information about the featured artist, as though it was designed for a tweeting generation. For Koons, the project is a sartorial celebration of the Old Masters and aims to “erase the hierarchy attached to fine art.”
With contemporary art selling better than old masters at auction houses, it is imperative for classical art to bring “the sacred” to the streets. Jeff Koons decided to do it with handbags.
Art is the backdrop
Lexus juxtaposed the old with the new in its new campaign “The Art of Standing Out,” where a couple drives their new NX sedan through a true-to-life modern recreation of some of the most famous masterpieces, ranging from Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”
Celebrating the Old Masters is a curious choice for a modern luxury car brand, and one that warrants examination. Is the car also a masterpiece? And if so, why does Lexus choose to admire the divine and the eternal from a distance, instead of incorporating the works into the car itself? Does that mean Lexus wishes to be seen as simply a patron of the arts and its cars not inherently works of art?
The commercial also happens to feature the likes of Piet Mondrian’s “Composition A” and Koons’ “Balloon Dog.” But it seems like Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 “Mondrian” collection was a braver endeavor, where entire shift dresses became canvases for the Dutch painter’s work.
Old Masters, new canvases
Whether these new developments have gotten a rise out of art connoisseurs or revived the Renaissance (amongst other movements), auction houses, galleries and museums can breathe a sigh of relief. The art world’s struggle to save the failing profiles of the Old Masters seems less formidable now. It’s as though these brands diagnosed old European paintings with a perception problem, and then enthusiastically proceeded to help solve it.