This isn’t the first time that advertisers – or, indeed, the automobile industry – have raided the cupboard of modern art to promote something. In 1999, the French car company Citroën launched a new model called the Xsara Picasso, with a glittering simulacrum of the Spanish artist’s signature emblazoned on both sides of each car.
It might seem faintly ridiculous to yoke together a small, economical family car, produced on an assembly line, with the pre-eminent artistic genius of the 20th century. After all, Picasso, a compulsive philanderer, could hardly be described as a family man. Moreover, he couldn’t even drive (he did have a car – a gas-guzzling, luxurious Hispano-Suiza – but he employed a chauffeur). But Citroën’s marketers weren’t bothered: the model, which ceased production this year, proved a massive hit, and 1.7 million vehicles were sold across Europe.
Nowadays the names Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso are often used to confer a bit of stardust upon mundane products and companies that have no direct link with the art world: the global hotel chain Radisson, for instance, uses a logo clearly modelled on Picasso’s signature. At some point, modern art became a brand – suggesting that art made during the 20th century has had a surprisingly broad influence.
This has preoccupied me over the past year while writing and presenting Modern Masters, a new four-part television series about modern art, which begins on BBC One on Sunday. The first set of programmes exclusively about modern art ever broadcast on the channel, the series aims to do two things: to introduce to as wide an audience as possible the extraordinary lives and work of four titans of 20th-century art (Henri Matisse, Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Warhol); and to demonstrate that modern art has shaped, and still saturates, our everyday world.
The more you look, the more you realise that modern art is everywhere. Take the work of Matisse. Of the four artists to feature in the series, he was born earliest, on New Year's Eve 1869, so you might think that he would have least to do with the modern world. You would be wrong.
Matisse preserved a persona of professorial respectability throughout his life, but he painted like a wild beast. He pioneered a fierce and exceptionally free use of colour that liberated art. His incendiary canvases painted in the southern French town of Collioure in the summer of 1905 proved that artists were no longer obliged to imitate the external world faithfully. Matisse paved the way for later artists such as the Abstract-Expressionist Mark Rothko, who used to stare for hours at the Frenchman’s sumptuous 1911 canvas The Red Studio in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, until he was moved to tears.
But Matisse exerted great influence beyond the world of fine art, too. Towards the end of his life, while recovering from cancer in the south of France, he developed a new technique known as the paper cut-out, characterised by bold, simplified shapes and pure, bright colours. Over the following decades, his late compositions influenced a number of different fields, including advertising, interior design, fashion – even children’s picture books.
Think of the recent Apple iPod advertisements that featured silhouettes of sinuous dancers against blocks of vivid colour. They are extraordinarily similar to some of Matisse’s cut-outs, such as Icarus (1947).
The British designer Paul Smith calls Matisse “the boss of colour”. When Smith was starting out, he told me, he was amazed by the extraordinary ways in which Matisse could successfully combine clashing hues within a single canvas. He showed me a number of his own colourful designs inspired by Matisse – including a tie clearly modelled on the monumental floating shapes of The Snail (1953), a cut-out which the artist completed shortly before his death. (It’s now in the permanent collection of Tate Modern.)
Smith isn’t the only fashion designer inspired by Matisse: Yves Saint Laurent, who used to say that he wished he had been Matisse, made a number of dresses suffused with the spirit of the French artist. The infamous ad for YSL’s Opium perfume, featuring the model Sophie Dahl naked and rapturously reclining against a dark backcloth, was inspired by Matisse’s so-called “odalisque” paintings of the 1920s, which depict languorous, semi-clad women lounging around highly decorated interiors.
Even Miffy the rabbit, the sweet star of a best-selling series of children’s picture books (more than 85 million copies have been sold around the world), is indebted to Matisse. When I met her creator, the Dutch artist Dick Bruna, in Utrecht, he happily revealed to me that the clean, uncluttered look of his books was originally inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs, which he saw in Paris in the years following the Second World War.
I could go on… but I hope that you get the point. Modern art didn’t just change the way that artists worked. It changed, and continues to influence, all of our lives, often in surprising ways. Modern art has imprinted itself upon the DNA of Western culture.
But why has it reached and influenced so many people, in a way that other “highbrow” or seemingly “difficult” art forms, such as opera, have not? In part, this is due to the fact that several modern artists became international celebrities and trendsetters in their own lifetimes. In the years after the Second World War, for instance, Picasso was so wealthy that he used to haul around a red-leather Hermès trunk stuffed full of millions of francs so that he would never be short of the cash to “buy a packet of cigarettes”.
He was frequently photographed leading a sun-soaked, playboy lifestyle on the white-sandy beaches of the Riviera (a part of the world which, incidentally, had never been a summertime holiday destination until Picasso and his smart friends started staying there during the hottest months of the year during the Twenties).
In other words: by the final decades of his life, Picasso had become a brand. His name had developed into shorthand for ceaselessly inventive artistic genius, understood by people who would not recognise a Picasso in a gallery.
No wonder that Citroën wanted to buy the rights to his signature: with the Spaniard’s imprimatur, a humdrum car can be magically transformed into a glamorous work of art.