Five stories of art


This is a compilation post that brings together my views on closely related topics, collating articles that I published earlier on this blog. It doesn’t contain new content, although part of it may have been slightly reworked. Knowing that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, I hope this update provides you with a bigger picture, a more complete list of good practices, or a better grounded opinion.


The attentive reader of this blog may have noticed that I love travelling. At frequent times, my wife and I take off on a city trip. These short holidays often provide a great occasion to visit the world’s most renowned museums and discover some of the stunning art collections they hold. A number of our excursions inspired me to write blog posts about the masterpieces themselves, the emotions they evoked, or an adjacent topic. Here’s a selection of 5 (plus 1 bonus) articles I published on this blog about a famous (or infamous) work of art.

1. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

When my spouse and I spent a long weekend in Paris, we explored the Louvre museum, the City of Light’s gargantuan temple of arts.

It is said that all roads lead to Rome, but inside the Louvre all signs seem to direct you to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And what’s more, a significant part of the visitors inside the museum look as if they have come in (only) to follow these signposts and troop together in front of the famous portrait.

monalisa

As there are about 35,000 other art treasures exhibited in other (and less frequented) parts of the 60,000 square meters large museum, I have often wondered why exactly this Mona Lisa painting is the most attracting object for so many tourists. Have they been inspired by perception or by suggestion?

My guess is that it is the story that is guiding them. The secret behind Lisa Gherardini’s mysterious smile. The lady’s eyes that seem to follow your around. The quest for the model’s real identity. The fascination for Leonardo’s intriguing personality.

In business it’s often the same. People just love stories. They like to be guided towards products and services that are interesting, compelling, intriguing… But as in the Louvre, there may also be lots of other hidden treasures to be discovered by the audience (and promoted by you). Each of them with its own story that’s waiting to be told…

2. Rembrandt van Rijn’s Night Watch

Another day we went visiting Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, and the Night Watch.

For the unhappy few who are not familiar with the world’s art heritage: the Night Watch (or de Nachtwacht in Dutch) is a group portrait of a local shooting company, painted by Rembrandt in 1642.

nachtwacht

Our youngest son, who had been on a school excursion to the Dutch capital a few months ago, complained afterwards that the time they could spend at the Rijksmuseum was “barely enough for a meet and greet with Rembrandt’s famous painting”. So, he absolutely wanted to get back to the museum and spend more quality time with the works of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and his Golden Age fellows. A good reason to return to the city of Amsterdam, isn’t it?

It may come as a surprise to you, but Rembrandt’s world renowned painting is competing for the spot of the number one tourist attraction in Amsterdam with… a modest terraced house. The Anne Frank House is frequented by more than one million people each year. When we got there (following our visit to the Rijksmuseum), the waiting queue at the front door had already grown to over 100 meters long.

Now, ask me what makes all these visitors come to visit the Anne Frank House and wait in line for more than one hour, and I will tell you that it’s her story. A story that appeals to people’s emotion. A true story told by a 15-year-old girl. A story about war, suffering and human courage. A story that is still relevant today, 70 years after the end of World War II. And – although the young girl’s history did not have a happy ending – possibly also a story of hope for millions of refugees all over the world. Each of them may be looking for a 21st century Achterhuis (aka Secret Annexe) where they can find a safe shelter from all sorts of persecution, terrorist aggression, separatist unrest, missile attacks, air strikes and ground offensives…

3. Hendrick van Anthonissen’s View of Scheveningen Sands

The online conversation following my “Moore’s law… and beyond” blog post revealed a fundamental discussion about data visualization: when we create and deliver a presentation, should we stick to the hard facts and figures, or is a presenter allowed to “filter”, “frame” or “massage” certain data?

Here’s my opinion. First of all, you should never, never lie to your audience or present them with facts and figures when you definitely know they are incorrect. There is nothing wrong, however, with omitting unnecessary details, or framing the content to better align with the message you’re trying to convey.

A good example of this is the use of (financial or industry) analyst data in your slides. Although most of these analyst guys are to be considered trustworthy sources, in my blog post about “the incredible lightness of numbers” I illustrated that the figures they give may sometimes vary by a large factor. Of course, as a presenter, you’re allowed to quote only the sources that ― depending on what you want to show or prove ― mention the smallest of the largest numbers.

As a presenter you can also influence the audience’s perception of objective data. The case (by Garr Reynolds) I have outlined in my post “the duck and the rabbit” shows how a table may be (mis)used as an alternative to a bar chart to display hard numbers in a less dramatic or emotional way.

And, finally, sometimes you may assume that a theory or statement is true, until somebody proves you it’s not. Take the anecdote of the 17th-century Dutch painting “View of Scheveningen Sands,” created by Hendrick van Anthonissen (hanging in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK.)

Until recently, the whole world assumed that the people on the painting were actually staring at a deserted seascape… and then the restoration of the artwork revealed a beached whale on the beach!

scheveningensands

4. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

Last November we visited the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, renowned as the home of Picasso’s Guernica. The famous mural-sized, black-and-white painting was created in 1937 after the devastating bombing on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and is considered one of the most powerful visual political statements ever made by an artists.

guernica

The painting was impressive indeed. Its visual message overwhelming. Undoubtedly the work of a genius.

After intensively and extensively admiring the masterpiece, a series of small black-and-white photographs caught my attention. Posted on the wall opposite the canvas, they depict the making of Guernica. The snapshots were taken by Dora Maar, Picasso’s muse in those days, and show the consecutive development stages of the artwork.

Thanks to these historical pictures I could witness how some key components of the composition, like the bull, the horse, and the (light bulb) sun, were created, destructed and recreated by the Spanish painter.

While observing the metamorphosis of Guernica, I had to think of Dale Carnegie’s quote about delivering a presentation:

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Just like Picasso’s masterpiece evolved during its inception, conception and creation, your presentation’s messaging, storytelling, and visualization may change over time – although an act of destruction is seldom required.

5. Giacomo  Puccini’s Tosca

Of course, there are other forms of art besides painting, such as theater and opera.

In my past posts I have written many times about ethos, pathos and logos. The three persuasive appeals, as described by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. If you think about it, ethos, pathos and logos are present in almost every area of our daily lives. And more than we realize, they determine how we experience situations, interact with people and make decisions.

I witnessed this recently myself on a trip to Budapest, where my wife and I spent a night at the opera, watching and listening to Puccini’s Tosca. I am not that frequent opera visitor nor a lifelong opera lover, but this performance really hit my sweet spot, thanks to ― what I interpreted afterwards as a ― perfect mix of ethos, pathos and logos.

tosca

  • Ethos: a more than a century old institution that opened in 1884, the Hungarian State Opera House has a very good reputation. The operaház’ acoustics are considered to be among the best in the world. From the moment we entered the venue, we were impressed by its gold-decorated interior and its red velvet seats.
  • Pathos: written by the late 19th century romantic Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, the opera Tosca is filled with emotion. With love, lust and jealousy. A review review by a Washington City Paper describes Tosca’s antagonist Scarpia as “the 19th century’s Darth Vader.” Almost two months after our night at the opera, Scarpia’s words “Beware: this is a place of tears!” (in Italian, “Questo è luogo di lagrime! Badate!”) still echo in my mind.
  • Logos: apart from the wonderful setting and the touching story, my wife and I enjoyed an outstanding interpretation of Tosca. The orchestra and the lead singers delivered a rousing performance. This music would have sounded great on my iPod too!

Lesson learned: as for so many other things in life, the whole of Aristotle’s rhetoric is greater than the sum of its three parts. It’s neither about ethos OR pathos OR logos, but all about ethos AND pathos AND logos

Bonus. Cecilia Giménez’ Potato Jesus

And finally, there was the story of the elderly Spanish lady who made the news by restoring a fresco in her own unique way? She did such a remarkable job that the mural painting by Elías García Martínez, originally known as Ecce Homo (“Here’s the Man”), got nicknamed Ecce Mono (“Here’s the Monkey”) and Potato Jesus.

But in the meantime her infamous artwork in a church near Zaragoza has turned out to be quite lucrative…

eccemono

After one year, the bespoke restoration had attracted 40,000 visitors and raised more than 50,000 euro for charity. Cecilia Giménez, the 81-year-old artist, has even had her own art exhibition and signed a deal with a local council to share profits from merchandising the image.

A somewhat unexpected conclusion from this fait divers: even questionable graphic material may (sometimes) generate good business — or yield good presentations. Take for example Tom Peters, a bestselling author who is known as a great business person and an inspiring public speaker. Even though the PowerPoint slides he creates are often overcrowded, with an eye-hurting mix of exotic fonts and striking primary colors (see e.g. one of his “Excellence Now” presentations on SlideShare) most of his presentations are simply excellent…

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