Sexxx on the Brain: Robert Brownjohn at MoMA

by Alix Finkelstein on October 26, 2012 Reviews

Screengrab from "Goldfinger" opening sequence

While designer Robert Brownjohn’s iconic Bond sequences may have aroused audiences in the early 60s, his current MoMA show “Goldfinger: The Design of an Iconic Film Title” hardly raises an eyebrow. In part, that has to do with our culture, which has so fully embraced Brownjohn’s salacious mindset that we’re nearly immune to nudity in commercial art. But it also has to do with the museum’s inability to convey the impact of the designer’s titillating imagery on a world dominated by post-war conservatism—work which made him a badass in his own time and a cult favorite among designers today.

Crammed into a corner of the museum’s design galleries, the exhibit is devoted to Brownjohn’s best-known work—his opening titles for the 1964 film Goldfinger—as part of MoMA’s October film exhibit “50 Years of James Bond” in its theatre. The titles are projected above a doorway; on either side of the doorway, on walls painted a gloomy London grey, the majority of the exhibit comprises early examples of Brownjohn’s graphic design work, some vaguely-related art by his contemporaries, and documentary photographs. As crowds wander through the permanent collection, you can barely hear the booming voice of jazz artist Shirley Bassey, who sings the movie’s title track. Basically, it falls short of the wall text promise to show “the context of the London scene.”

The curators offer Swingeing London 67, a photolithograph by Pop artist Richard Hamilton, which acts as a kind of curatorial footnoting of the cross-pollination of art and design during the 60s (and also Brownjohn’s friendship with the Rolling Stones; the exhibit includes the album cover he created for the Stones’ 1969 release Let It Bleed). There is also a photograph of a sculpture now installed in MoMA’s exhibition devoted to the artist Alina Scapocznikow, but the connection seems tenuous. Even if the sculpture was inspired by the movie, the image is a poor facsimile of the work itself, and it doesn’t really demonstrate Brownjohn’s lasting influence.

A dandy and a dope fiend, Brownjohn wore crushed green velvet jackets and frequently disappeared from the offices of his various advertising agencies to keep company with the jazz artists and rock gods who fed his love of music. They also fed into his addiction to heroin. But despite his excesses, major corporations like Pepsi-Cola and Midland Bank paid handsomely for Brownjohn to modernize their brands with found object imagery and inventive typography. Brownjohn built sculpture out of soda-bottle caps and, with his design partners, pioneered creative uses of type setting to underscore meaning: transforming “exclamation” into “!xclamation” and “sex” into “sexxx.”

Robert Brownjohn's "Obsession and Fantasy," 1962-3 (Photo courtesy of MoMA)

You can see some of the excitement Brownjohn’s advertising generated in the two projects on view: Brownjohn’s print campaign for Lifelons hosiery and a poster for an art exhibition at the Robert Fraser Gallery. Brownjohn’s execution of the latter was simply a matter of magic-markering the first word of the show’s title “Obsession and Fantasy” onto the naked torso of his girlfriend using her two erect nipples as substitutions for the letter “o.” It’s disappointing that the exhibition does not include Brownjohn’s next conceptual leap in linking eroticism and the alphabet: the title sequence for the second Bond film From Russia With Love. This was Brownjohn’s first film project, and it gave the designer the opportunity to really put type into erotic motion through the projection of slides of the picture credits onto the shimmying figures of a snake and belly dancer (the latter is said to have run out after being asked to lift her skirt). Demanding a larger budget from the producers for Goldfinger’s title sequence, Brownjohn then took up the challenge of filming moving imagery against a starlet’s body, which he called “a three-dimensional gold screen.”

Rather than projecting text, Brownjohn clad a voluptuous model in a gold-leather bikini, covered her skin in gold paint, and projected scenes of seduction and spy-chasing from all the Bond films onto her body. This cast a gold patina on raunchy elements—Connery running across a model’s calf, or a golf ball rolling smoothly around her shoulder and down between her breasts. The surreal depiction of the series’ core themes of sex and violence inflamed audiences’ anticipation for the spymaster’s antics and exploits that followed. Once the time to run for the concession stand, the titles suddenly became a “can’t-miss” moment of filmmaking.

The rest of the exhibit refers—more or less—to the design of the Goldfinger title sequence, which earned Brownjohn a D&AD award, and became the first film titles to enter MoMA’s collection last year. Photos document Brownjohn, aligning his camera to the moving imagery on the model’s Amazonian proportions; wall text quotes Brownjohn on his preference for spontaneity.

A single vitrine is devoted to evidence of the designer’s early influences, most notably that of his professor, the Bauhaus theorist and director of the Chicago Institute of Design, László Maholy-Nagy. Advertisements of Maholy-Nagy’s lectures and books show the artists’ shared interests in the use of photography for mass communication, the figure, and the manipulation of light over a three-dimensional form. Also on view, Maholy-Nagy’s curricular text Vision in Motion, which included photographs of Brownjohn’s student project— a torqued manipulation of a narrow sheet of plastic that presages the designer’s interest in undulation and transparency.

Goldfinger may have been a career capstone for the graphic designer, who died at age 44 from a heart attack in 1970, but the exhibition’s singular focus leaves the breadth and depth of the designer’s impact still panting to be explored. Having recently acquired more than 200 of Brownjohn’s art works, graphics, and photographs, it feels like this exhibition only made it to first base.

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