Feature

Did brands’ faith in artists die with Campari’s posters?

There aren’t many brands with the legacy or kudos to open an exhibition dedicated solely to their advertising. Campari, however, has both in abundance – a history spanning more than 150 years and a body of creative work that charts the fluctuations of art itself

There aren’t many brands with the legacy or kudos to open an exhibition dedicated solely to their advertising. Campari, however, has both in abundance – a history spanning more than 150 years and a body of creative work that charts the fluctuations of art itself

It’s thanks to Davide Campari, the son of the drink’s founder, that the brand will be sitting pride of place in London’s Estorick Collection until September. One of the earliest people to fill the role we now know as brand director, the Milanese’s vision was to make the drink known throughout the world via the power of visuals. But unlike most clients, Campari left all strategy planning to artists.

Campari went about enlisting the most celebrated poster artists in Italy for his campaigns: Leonetto Cappiello, Marcello Dudovich, Adolf Hohensteino, and Marcello Nizzoli all rose further to artistic fame because of his commissions.

Its first posters reflected the Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the 20th century – all curved lines, aspirational subjects and flamboyant interpretations of nature. Campari’s laissez-faire approach to creative direction – and the power these creators held over this relatively new, novel brand of aperitif – meant that his brand’s advertising followed the course of 20th century art history. It dipped into cubism and intense still life before running straight into modernism during the 1930s.

It was then that Campari “started playing a much more modern role through advertising”, according to Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection.

“It fit very well with the ideas of the futurists – the idea of art being of the time,” she explained. “They thought that people would no longer have time to absorb art from galleries and would have to grab glimpses of it from the side of a bus, and things like that. Art had to become much faster, which fit with the changes in Milan at the time with – the tram, the lighting...everybody was embracing modernity.”

Futurism meant speed, and with speed came the humour of Fortunato Depero. His work for Campari is arguably its most celebrated and most important as it set the tone for the decade to come. The cheeky, android-like characters of his geometric ink pen sketches were mimicked well into the Dolce Vita style of the swinging 1960s, and even influenced the design of the conical Campari Soda bottle.

“The design became fun,” said Cremoncini, “and that eventually became part of the Campari brand.”

The historic body of work built by Campari across 70 years lost gusto with the arrival of television. Finding itself surrounded by more competitors than before the liqueur largely replaced poster design with cutting edge mediums of TV and photography, and lost its taste for all that was artistically new. Directors replaced artists, but brand directors replaced visionaries. Its east London pop-up Negroni bar of 2016 arguably cemented its place in the league of contrived. And now Cremonicini believes Campari to simply be “very much a brand”.

“It’s much more mainstream in the sense that everybody now does amazing campaigns,” she said. “It’s just not as groundbreaking as it used to be.”

At the height of futurism Depuro declared “the art of the future will largely be advertising”, an idea many would find laughable after a cursory flick through the channels or scroll round the banner ads. Aside from rare, highly publicised reunion (such as Damian Hirst and Supreme or Jeff Koons and Snapchat), it appears that artists and advertising have well and truly fallen out. Why?

Tom Muller, a creative director at Possible who also runs his own print design studio, believes it’s partly because the two are no longer as reliant on each other. Modern advertising takes more inspiration from Hollywood than the Louvre, and while “artists used to be the prime – or only – source of image making, we now have much more tools at our disposal to do so, which means that artists today are really engaged for hyper-specific briefs to create a certain image, and look and feel.”

Advertisers also have less need for artists in the traditional sense – a painter, for instance, would struggle to win a commission over a digital artist or graphic designer, especially if that painter was unwilling to change direction at the whim of a brand director. It’s here that the line between artist and creative has become unclear; “a commercial photographer or illustrator, for instance, wouldn’t consider themselves any less an artist than a painter exhibiting at the Tate” explained Beri Cheetham, executive creative director of The Gate.

The distinction lies, it would appear, with who gets headline credit – 'artists' do, 'creatives' often do not.

At any rate, brands' penchant for beautiful visuals is diminishing in favour of the clean and clear, or the witty.

“Commercial work now so often moves away from ‘inspiration’ towards ‘information’,” said WCRS’s head of art, Grant Parker. “Transport for London had such an impressive legacy of commissioned works that were artworks in their own right. The timeless Man Ray ‘Keep London Going’ masterpiece would be a welcomed gem inbetween the clutter that we see daily on our commute.

“Sadly, advertisers today rarely create bold, simple work like this anymore. The complexity of messages muddies the waters a lot, and my absolute hatred - the horror of ‘aesthetic cleansing’ continues to compromise the work.”

There is, then, a gap in the market for brands looking to break from this sanitised mold and take a bet on real artistry à la Davide Campari. Artists can provide a clear visual direction that proves tougher to dilute through the bureaucratic layers of sign-off.

And artists are waiting for briefs in droves. Collectives such as Greyworld and Satore Studio, for instance, are taking artistic installation principles and adapting them to the needs of brands. All they demand is a reasonable degree of liberty.

“More traditional brands are becoming open to new artistic approaches, but it’s often constrained to what they know or what they’ve seen work for other brands,” said Alex Leyva, visual director at Satore. “They often want to be on trend rather than allowing artists to take them to the next level and try something truly innovative. Creative freedom is key when it comes to artists working with brands. Without it, the brand moves further and further away from the work the artist actually wants to produce.”

She added the it’s often the brands targeting younger audiences that understand how the relationship should work best.

“Campari’s founders were clearly onto a good thing by leaving the artists to do what they do best,” Parker concluded. “The more we can allow that to happen the better the work will be: uncompromised, bolder, purer, and ultimately a more beautiful bit of communication.

"And, unless we can start to commission with confidence and step back a little, I’m afraid Ogden Nash would have been right with his poem: 'I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree…', even if that tree were ‘Shot on iPhone 6’."