Shakespear’s Portraits

Great artists are blind to the traditional borders of creative endeavor. They don’t yield to the exclusive canon built up over generations by a craft’s practitioners. Instead, they follow their muse, often tripping from one medium to the next to discover and declare their vision across a mutable palette of artistic tools.

When an artist leaps the chasm from one kind of artistic expression to another, the artist’s essence is revealed. Looking at two works in two different media by the same person allows us to strip away the formal elements of each artifact and find the threads that connect one to the other, and the pair to their creator.

Today, we know Ronald Shakespear as a designer with a wide portfolio of celebrated identity and environmental graphics projects. But in the 1960s, one of his primary modes of visual expression was portraiture, harnessing black and white photography to capture friends and celebrities in intimate moments. In his forthcoming book, Visiting the Sixties, he shares these photographs again — and today, with the benefit of time and the breadth of his design career, we can appreciate the threads that tie these photos to the rest of Shakespear’s body of work.

Like his most successful logos, these portraits are simple gestures and yet they are iconic in their ability to communicate a great deal within a modest format. His portrait of Jorge Luis Borges is a sketch of the poet-philosopher in the formal elegance of his office in National Library of Argentina — an affectionate and faithful study of this public figure.

I look forward to perusing Visiting the Sixties to divine more of Shakespear’s essential visual language — and to meet those he chose to depict in his lyrical portraits.

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