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Anatomy of Design by Mirko Ilic, Steven Heller

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48
ANATOMY OF DESIGN
“Discover all that you don’t usually see” is an ostensibly benign slogan
introduced in a 2005 advertising campaign for L’Espresso, the Italian newsweekly.
For a magazine that prides itself on getting behind news stories, the slogan is
also rather predictable and pedestrian. What sears these words unforgettably
into the public’s consciousness is the startling imagery that accompanies it.
Each full-page or double-spread advertisement features an eerie version
of a famous Renaissance religious painting that looks like it was put through an
X-ray machine. However, what is revealed is not the underpainting or drawing
usually seen when for purposes of restoration an old painting is exposed to
X-rays; instead, what materializes is a precise human skeleton, as though the
figure in the painting was actually made of skin and bone. Of course, a classic
painting like
The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, one (of many) where the figure is
shown tied to a tree and shot with arrows, is just an oil-on-canvas depiction of
a man, not a real man with a real skeleton. But this campaign shows what
might be possible if iconic depictions were, in fact, of real people.
The campaign is actually kind of creepy while at the same time
gripping—odd but beautiful—in large part because most people are endlessly
fascinated by transparencies, especially skeletons. Whether at Halloween or in
horror films, the bony armatures are ominously gruesome yet comfortingly
familiar. They are also the great human equalizer. No matter how we appear in
our birthday suits—beautiful or plain, black or white, scarred or pristine—as
skeletons we are reduced to the same fundamental component; the thighbone is
indeed connected to the hipbone, which is the only aesthetic that matters.
These advertisements seem to be saying that behind all the art and
artifice, even these saints, madonnas, martyrs, and angels are composed of
the same basic stock. That’s one reason why no matter how peculiar the
paintings appear in their X-ray state, it is difficult not to appreciate them as
works of art in their own right. But just in case the viewer doesn’t understand
the concept or has never seen the original paintings, small reproductions of
the originals appear at the bottom of the ads.
The
L’Espresso campaign liberally borrows from various sources, not
least the common loan of classical art in advertisements for all kinds of
products. Some ads show an exact reproduction of say, the
Mona Lisa, while
others involve transforming the art to look bizarrely contemporary, estranged
from original context, like the one here of a photograph of Vincent van Gogh
wearing current men’s fashion and posing like his famous self-portrait, which
he is holding. Famous paintings are ready-made eye-catchers because the
majority of viewers know the references but are pleased by the slight or
radical skewering of icons. However, it may not be possible to be more radical
than the
L’Espresso ads.
X-raying the paintings is unique to this campaign, but X-ray art or
photography in advertising and editorial illustrations has been used repeatedly
and for different reasons. While MRIs and CAT scans have overtaken the X-ray
for precise body imaging, the translucent look of fluoroscopic film strikes a
sense of mystery on the one hand and is stunningly decorative on the other.
What’s more, thanks to Superman, we all wish we had the power of X-ray
vision. As illustrations, X-rays exude a kind of complexity that would seem dated
if it were straight realism. In the
L’Espresso ads, the X-ray somehow
modernizes these venerable paintings.
This campaign succeeds not because it is a clever marriage of word and
image but because the average viewer is persistently fascinated with skulls. As
gruesome as they are made to appear in horror film posters and paperback
mystery book covers, the skull is not entirely grotesque but rather possesses a
curious symmetrical beauty that comes through in the
L’Espresso ads.
L’Espresso
Designer: Massimo Verrone, Lowe Pirella Agency
2002 Discover everything you usually can’t see. L’Espresso reveals all the
secrets of paintings by famous artists, campaign
ad: Massimo Verrone cw: Paolo Platania p: Paolo Franco s: Lowe Pirella, Milan
Campaign for a series on art in magazine “L’Espresso.”
Go to the masters
Human x-rays
Fascination with skulls

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