More than Fifty Years of Magnificent Failures: Oliviero Toscani’s Manifesto for the Modern Creative

It feels trite to describe a book documenting over half a century of work as ‘timely’ when timeliness has been Oliviero Toscani’s calling card for more than fifty years. In his own words on the launch of More Than Fifty Years of Magnificent Failures, published this month, “[as an artist] you are a testimony to the human condition, and if you don’t do that, you are a mediocre person”. But, as Toscani himself suggests in the book’s afterword, extracted from yet another rousing speech, the need to redefine the identity and purpose of the creative industries, and those who toil within their bounds, has perhaps never been so urgent as at this precise moment.

Echoing sentiments recently and notably expressed by the likes of Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz, amongst others, Toscani has lamented the ever-increasing toll of, as he sees it, a consumerist and media-driven homogenisation of both society and the creative industries, declaring not only that “creative people now are condemned to serve and work in terms of financial success” but that “communication, with all its medias, is like some colas: largely content free, artificially flavoured, infinitely reproducible”. A fairly damning indictment, then, of those “intellectuals, creative people and artists who produce communication” and are thus “in the front line of this army of collaborationists” – gulp.

As the images which fill this coffee table tome can hardly fail to attest, Toscani is a man who holds himself to his own standards (itself a depressingly rare quality to be found within the confines of the creative industries today or, indeed, society at large). Although fond of declaring that he is neither fashion photographer nor artist, advertising photographer nor reporter, but simply “a photographer”, public awareness nevertheless centres on the United Colors of Benetton campaign images which punctuate, and – it’s fair to say – dominate, the book. Yep, the rip-roaringly successful 18-year ad campaign that never featured the product. As an eighties baby, Toscani’s Benetton billboards wallpapered the streets of my childhood. In fact, until the last was ripped down as the millennium dawned, I’d quite simply never known a world without them, my earliest years coloured by appealingly multi-tonal jumbles of children and animals which rolled up, up and away to make way for the disturbingly compelling commingling of sexuality with death threat which characterised the ads of that other most ubiquitous of ’90s advertisers, the tobacco industry. As I grew up, Toscani’s images became more explicit in meaning, more insistent on provoking thought, as opposed to simply compelling attention, which was always, he claims, his primary aim – “to provoke”, as opposed to “to shock”. That the Benetton campaign provoked levels of outrage and censorship approximately equivalent to that inspired by the tobacco ads says something. And not something good.

Interspersed with campaign images, magazine covers and reportage spreads, anecdotes and analytical musings supplied by associates acquired over the course of Toscani’s five decade career pepper the book’s pages. Amusing and insightful in almost equal measure, contributors ranging from David Bailey to Issey Miyake (who simply states, “We would pass through our lives aimlessly were it not for Oliviero Toscani’s provocative photos”) are almost all unequivocal in their praise – but it’s Toscani’s decision to include those who aren’t quite so complimentary which is most interesting. One of his few detractors, conservationist Doug Tompkins, who, before joining the “environmental movement”, had collaborated with Toscani for Esprit, derides his fixation on the “human” (rather than the natural – which, Toscani freely admits, “scares” him) perspective, and reliance on the photographic medium – “the enabler of advertising which drives the overconsumption that plagues the world today”.

Fair point, Doug. But where does that leave those of us who are, in fact, loath to prostitute our creative abilities to the highest bidder but also, um, need to eat (or at least inhale the occasional canapé at the odd book launch)? Over to Oliviero, who boldly reassures us that “you can’t be a free artist”. After all, “Caravaggio did the advertising of the church” in painting images of the Madonna. “The artist is free to express himself just when he reaches his [con]comitant (I don’t call them clients). So you understand that the connection between art and power is very close”. One of mutual interdependence, in fact – on the impetus for his collaboration with Luciano Benetton, Toscani tells us he mused, “How can I get that the picture goes out everywhere?” – not just on one page of one newspaper or one magazine, but out on the streets, across the globe… The answer, at least in a pre-digital world, was, of course, “advertising”. And, though casually dismissive of what he was actually selling, shrugging, “We took away the product because more or less they’re all the same… I never sold a sweater in my life,” those sweater sales still went through the roof.

But that was a long time ago, and Toscani’s words make decidedly uncomfortable reading for every ‘creative communicator’ bowing to both financial need and the seemingly irrepressible tyranny of ‘social media’ today. There may be no such thing as a free artist, but our Oliviero charges the true creative to throw off the chains of their own notions (illusions?) of security and embrace the magnificence of failure, because “the moment of greatest insecurity is the moment of your greatest creativity” – and, after all, Columbus wouldn’t have discovered America if he hadn’t ‘failed’ to reach India. 

“To be creative means to have no securities, it means doing the contrary of what every pre-established system wants you to do… to try to do something that has never been done before, to build out of nothing something that can have an enormous value… It’s about time to revolutionise this situation.”

Toscani has thrown down the gauntlet and offered the baton – let’s pick up the one and run with the other.

Oliviero Toscani: More Than Fifty Years of Magnificent Failures, published by Goodman, is available now, priced at £35.

Samantha Simmonds