As we know, to be creative or successful in many spheres requires looking at things in a different way. And as I caught up with the recent news from David Bowie, it brought to mind the surprises that he and other Davids have sprung upon us over the years too.
Centuries ago a huge block of Italian marble was unworkable, or so they said. It sat for a generation or more in a mason’s studio in Florence with a rough hole cut through it near the bottom, before it was abandoned. Its vast surface was a mass of rough chisel cuts and it was pock marked with the frustrations of many hands. It was a lump of useless rock that had come to be hated by the craftsmen of the city, over whom it towered, reminding them of their failure.
The genius Michelangelo eventually came upon it and finally carved it into probably the most famous sculpture of the male figure in the world. He was inspired by the story of David and Goliath in the Bible. It told of how a boy with a sling and a few pebbles had the grace and stealth to beat a far stronger opponent – the brute Goliath, a veritable man mountain whom he met in combat.
In his clever way, the artist’s highly innovative depiction of the youth David was also the personification of Florence, a figure of youthful energy that was far superior to the brutish power of Rome, its bullying neighbour – that threw its weight about all too often. The people of Florence saw the true meaning of the symbolic sculpture instantly, and have loved it ever since, because it speaks to them of themselves and their civilised ways.
In retrospect it is easy to think that this labour happened in simple steps – but of course it did not. The artist was drawn – and draws the viewer – to a subtle victor and not an obvious one. He selected his theme with great care. We are asked to respect and respond to an unadorned hero and not one covered in armour and the typical accoutrements of war. In the Bible, David was plucked from obscurity just as the figure emerged from the resisting stone: very much against the odds. Michelangelo chose to be perceptive rather than popular: he would leave his reputation to the generations to come.
More recently, the accomplished artist and photographer Sam Taylor Wood was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to capture the essence of David Beckham. It is worth noting that by the early 2000s, this international footballer was one of the most recognised faces and most famous brands in the world. As such, a commission like this could easily have ended an artist’s career rather than made it. Where does one start? How do you begin to find something fresh to say about such a universal icon? Where would she place the football? How would it not be a cliché? What could she possibly say?
Everyone would have an opinion. We all knew the subject well. It was like redesigning a banknote. A dilemma indeed. A thankless task.
So in 2004 she came at the commission from a wholly different angle. This man who personified action and athleticism was placed by her in the opposite extreme: a figure in quiet repose. There was no ball. There was no action. There was no football kit. There was no sports ground. There was no trace of his career to be seen.
Instead, the viewer is faced with the simplicity of a young man filmed in repose – asleep, or feigning sleep as the screen shows little or nothing more than a few muscles moving in his face in close up. The closed eyes denote introspection – the opposite of the action and extraversion we might expect from a global athlete. Never before has he been portrayed as a thinker or a dreamer. So this is a first.
And how did it go down? It was a surprise but people liked it. The queues were long for the duration of the exhibition and it remains in favour to this day for its singularity.
We return to our third David. After a ten year silence, Bowie recently surprised us on his birthday with a new song. That wasn’t the only surprise. It did not take its inspiration from New York where he has been living for several years or from his current lifestyle.
No. He harked back to his time in Berlin more than a generation ago, a place he had sought out when his body was racked with drugs and his mind beset by fears for his creative future. So his fans received two surprises in one. The timing and the subject matter. A third if you add that the tone of the new song – “Where are we now?” was thoughtful and elegiac rather than pop or like the music he had made just before the long silence.
But that is great art. Like any wonderful innovator, he takes us somewhere unexpected – both geographically and emotionally – as all the artists cited here have done, one way or another.
And I’m sure the forthcoming 2013 exhibition at the V&A will have its share of shocks too when it opens in March. Bowie will be “chameleon, Corinthian and caricature” once more, just like in his old song.
Like the other artists we admire so much, he is sure to keep us guessing…