THE ORIGINS OF PRAVDA AND COCA-COLA

Guy Peellaert's Pravda and Coca-Cola, 1968.

As part of a flurry of projects marking the centennial of Coca-Cola's "Contour" bottle, Assouline is publishing Kiss the Past Hello, a new coffee table book compiling an eclectic mix of images and art inspired by the enduring design icon. The wide-ranging iconography encompasses prototype sketches, vintage ad campaigns as well as recent contributions from leading graphic designers. Perhaps ironically, it is the more ambiguous, uncommissioned works from the original Pop artists (Rauschenberg and Warhol in particular) that provide the most dignifying aura of permanence to the Coke bottle. In testament to early Pop Art's power of subversion, a sly critical undercurrent continues to permeate these works in spite of the book's understandable efforts to absorb them into a largely promotional discourse.

Appearing here alongside a 2014 commission from Neville Brody is Pravda & Coca Cola (1967), arguably the most familiar incarnation of Guy Peellaert's countercultural heroine. Displaying his signature mechanical flat color patterns and sinuous draughtsmanship, the artist depicted his inscrutable character, an allegorical figure of self-reliance and emancipation, holding a Coke bottle as a totemic symbol of consumer society and the proliferation of images in the modern age. Originally created as a street poster advertising the October 1967 issue of Hara-Kiri (the French satirical monthly in which Pravda was first serialized), the image was reprised several times throughout Peellaert's life, notably gracing the cover of Pravda in a more streamlined style when the serial was compiled into a book in 1968.

At the height of the Cold War, Peellaert's character (named after the elusive pursuit of the "Truth" but also after the official publication of the Soviet Communist Party) was holding an object synonymous with American imperialism and the language of advertising : deceptively simple, Pravda & Coca Cola is a classic example of Pop Art's ambivalent gaze, caught between fascination and criticism, seduction and manipulation, eluding a straightforward stance and exhibiting a puzzling objectivity as it leaves the viewer grappling with layer upon layer of meaning. 
A little-known fact about Peellaert's absorbing image is that it was conceived in reference to Gustav Klimt's Nuda Veritas ("The Naked Tuth"), a painting whose daring eroticism shocked the conservative establishment of Vienna at the end of the 19th Century, when Klimt and other avant-garde artists broke with traditional institutions of fine art and named themselves the Vienna Secession. Realized in the early days of the movement, the 1899 painting depicts a red-haired, full-hipped woman standing in defiant frontal nudity and holding up a small mirror to the viewer, as if to invite self-examination. Klimt was subverting the pictorial tradition of the allegory of Truth portrayed as a nude female figure, harkening back to the Renaissance. At the turn of the century, and after Klimt's paintings had been rejected from several institutions, the notion of Truth was turning into a reflection on the artist's integrity, as evidenced by the quote from German poet Schiller inscribed at the top of the painting : 'If you cannot please everyone with your actions and your art, you should satisfy a few. To please many is dangerous.' 

Gustav Klimt's Nuda Veritas, 1899.

These uncompromising words must have resonated powerfully with Peellaert, a maverick artist destined to operate outside the realm of the art world's institutions, who professed to work "for just a handful of people whose opinion is the only one that matters." He had studied Klimt's elaborate murals as part of his training in Monumental Art in the early 1950s, and with Pravda & Coca-Cola he reinterpreted the rebellious nature of Nuda Veritas for a new age of social and political upheavals inevitably feeding through into art theory : after the 1960s—and Warhol in particular—could art ever be the same again ?