Probably the most successful art director of all-time is Rene Magritte.
He has had more of a hand in more award-winning ideas than even Neil Godfrey. And Godfrey was named by D&AD as the most awarded art director in their 50-year history.
It’s not just that so many of Magritte’s images have been adapted or stolen for campaigns (by Godfrey among others) but his surreal view of the world has been of massive and enduring influence.
Seeing his ideas used to sell stuff from banks and beer to cigarettes may not have appalled him as it might have other, purer artists. Though he claimed later he found the work ‘nauseating’, he actually started out in advertising.
An exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2011, called ‘The Pleasure Principle’, showed some of his advertising work as well as a lot of the advertising work he inspired. He was sufficiently proud of his 16-page brochure for the furrier Maison Samuel to take it to Paris to show it to André Breton, leader of the Surrealist movement.
He even set up an agency, Studio Dongo. (If you’ve just given your new agency a random name, a word plucked out of nowhere, you aren’t the first.)
René Magritte, Maison Samuel brochure 1926
When Magritte could afford to paint full-time, he set out to be deliberately un-painterly. His fine art looked deliberately like his commercial art, his paintings like posters. His style was flat and graphic so that his technique didn’t get in the way of his images. He wrote that he was determined to “make the most familiar objects yell.” So he played with perspective and size to make everyday things suddenly become dreamlike and strange.
Magritte juxtaposed images to startle and to draw attention.
Which is exactly what most advertising tries to do, to make the dullest of products suddenly interesting.
In a piece she wrote for Campaign in 2009, Kate Nettleton argued that advertising creatives latched on to surrealism because it allowed them to loosen the rules. Client wants us to show the product? Fine. We’ll show it. But in a field, in the sky, in an eye.
What Magritte did was to give us the concept of originality.
His images were like nothing anyone had ever seen before. And that’s what designers began to try to do. Create images that were startling in their novelty. The irony is that today this sort of surrealist approach is a tried and trusted advertising route. Rarely shocking, often not even noticeable because we’ve become too used to it.
adam&eve DDB, Harvey Nicols, 2006
It’s not as if art directors started riffing off Magritte only relatively recently. They were nicking his particular vision of the world as early as 1938. See this Shell ad as evidence.
Perhaps the single most copied/adapted image he created was his picture of 1932, “This is Not a Pipe”, which has subsequently flogged insurance, beer, food, the World Wildlife Fund and an art gallery among others.
A few of the imitations
In the UK, Magritte was the spirit behind a campaign that established CDP as THE most creative agency in the country, by a distance.
The Benson and Hedges campaign, originally conceived by Alan Waldie in 1976, became news at a time long, long before agencies deliberately set out to get their work talked about.
Over the next decade, the campaign won a ton of awards for a host of art directors. If he’d been credited, what would Magritte have made of winning a fat yellow pencil? That doesn’t write?
Surreal, maybe? And what about the fact that Waldie was genuinely amazed when the art world completely ignored his posters. Not a single critic wrote about them. Unreal?
Over the decades since Magritte’s death in 1967, plenty of other art directors and designers have paid homage to the master. Here is some of his work and theirs.