I’ve recently been researching Rembrandt van Rijn, probably the greatest painter ever to have emerged from the Netherlands. And that’s saying something. Jan Vermeer, Vincent Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian might have reason to differ. Whoever’s top dog, it struck me that Rembrandt faced the same constraints and dilemmas as today’s designers – then usually found an ingenious way around them.
At a time when the line between graphics and art is so firmly demarcated, the comparison is a moot one. Even the term ‘commercial artist’ has been jettisoned, flying too close to the wind for fine art snobs on the one hand, and the branding brigade on the other, who are determined to pull graphic design kicking and screaming into a serious, quasi-scientific business.
But to see fine art as pure, personal expression, unsullied by grubby commerce, is naive. Raphael’s powerful paymaster was the Vatican. Damien Hirst – like Andy Warhol before him – is a one-man industry.
Rembrandt had many clients making demands on him. They were men of power and influence, representing the great corporate bodies of the day. Doctors, drapers, the local militia. They wanted group portraits that showed how grand, successful and clever they were; a brand image captured in oils and canvas.
Rembrandt had to tread carefully, making sure to ‘deliver the same levels of service and excellence’ to all. He also needed a clear understanding of the nature of the work and pecking order, dropping in relevant symbolic objects, giving the big cheeses the necessary spotlight and losing the also-rans in background shadow. So it wasn’t all about skill, his paintings involved diplomacy, research, scholarship, and above all, an idea of how best to capture the ‘brand essence’ of his subjects.
There was a lot of competition out there too. In the mid-1600s, it’s reckoned there were nearly 200 artists in Amsterdam vying for the same business. Some of them weren’t up to much, but they all had the patter and were prepared to negotiate hard on price. So Rembrandt couldn’t afford to rest on his beautifully rendered laurels.
Whatever he painted though, he always seized the opportunity to squeeze in some Rembrandt. Even in the most unlikely subjects, he always managed to find room for personal references, jokes and preoccupations, whether this was testing out a new technique or making a covert political point. And this constant experimentation is what led him to greatness.
Today’s very best designers share this ability to put something of themselves into their work. A certain blinding self-belief and single-mindedness sets them apart – sometimes bordering on arrogance and selfishness. But it raises the stakes – lifts the level of their work from the average, gives it poetry and potency, originality and fire. They have something of the artist in them.
You could argue that the Apple Macintosh has removed some of the interesting edges. And ironically, in a climate that pays lip service to the ideal that every job should be treated on its own merits, many have come to look safe and samey. A bank, a phone company, an insurance company, a supermarket chain… can you really tell the difference?
Now ask yourself. Would Rembrandt have been satisfied with that?