Gorbachev ad for Louis Vuitton, 2007/2008: Why am I Obsessed with this Photograph?

May 2, 2009 at 12:18 am

The first time I came across this advert about two years ago, it was displayed on a full page of broadsheet South China Morning Post (I was visiting Hong Kong*), but I have since seen it in Financial Times and in a variety of glossy lifestyle magazines like Monocle. Back then, I thought for a second, how interesting it is that now older men are being used for advertising. My second thought was that this man looks somewhat like Gorbachev. It was only in the third instance that I realized it not only looked like him, it WAS him! I must admit, it came as a shocking realisation to me. But why? Hasn’t Gorbachev become by now just another one in the line of celebrities like Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards, Steffi Graf, and Frances and Sophia Coppola, who posed to Annie Leibovitz for the other adverts in this successful promotional series?

The photo is clearly created for a certain context, but the act of someone like me seeing it opens up a host of other memory frameworks. Why am I still obsessed with this photograph? Maybe because it shows him in a car that is taking him somewhere, away from the Berlin wall seen in the background**. The man is checking out, he is leaving, and thus denying us his assured paternalistic presence. We, the losers, are left alone whatever follows.

Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union and checked out. Communism collapsed. Many people across the Eastern Bloc were ill prepared for the knock-off effect on work and domestic routines that followed. Those who had nurtured an idealized image of western prosperity were startled by the increasing economic disparities within their once egalitarian universes. Confronted with the collapse of ideology and memory frameworks, many were plunged into an identity crisis.

I am clearly not the only one who is obsessed with this photograph. I discover a similarly-titled blog entry, Pourquoi suis-je obsédé par cette photo ?, on the site of a Canadian Francophone writer called Patric Lagace, who evidently saw the photo on the back of his copy of The New Yorker. Remarking that he can barely imagine a more bourgeouis-looking image than the one of the former communist leader turned luxtury promoter, Lagace writes:

Or, voilà, je suis obsédé par cette photo du nouveau « visage » de LV, j’ai nommé l’ancien (le dernier, en fait) secrétaire général du Parti communiste soviétique, Mikhaël Gorbatchev. Je veux bien que Gorby fut l’homme de la perestroïka, l’homme qui a amorcé un virage, mais ça reste l’homme qui représenta, jadis, le monde communiste. Bref, je n’ai de cesse d’étudier cette photo, qui est à l’arrière de mon magazine New Yorker de la semaine. Donc, il y a ça. L’association Gorby-luxe. Mais il y a que la photo est prise devant le Mur de Berlin. Il y a un je-ne-sais-quoi de troublant. C’est peut-être le sac plein. C’est peut-être la légende sous la photo, vaporeuse comme toutes les phrases de campagne de marque. C’est peut-être que ça symbolise une époque formidable de la grande aventure humaine, cette époque dans laquelle on vit. Je veux dire, un ancien chef communiste qui nous vend de la gogosse de luxe, moins de 20 ans après la chute de l’URSS. Vous m’auriez dit ça en 1986, j’aurais ri de vous (enfin, pas moi, j’avais 14 ans, mais vous comprenez ce que je veux dire). Bref, un ex-kamarade qui devient on ne peut plus bourgeois. Je ne serais pas surpris que, de mon vivant, un pape lâche le Vatican pour devenir producteur de télé-réalité…

Lagace’s post has generated eighty three reactions in the comments***. I admit I had no idea that, as one of the commentators remarked, this was not the first array of Gorbachev into advertising. In fact, it transpired, the man had already done a Pizza Hut ad in Moscow, featuring a group of Russians who ave gathered for lunch at the Pizza Hut restaurant near the Red Square and concede that Gorbachev is the man who brought them freedom, so that they can eat this pizza to the end, and shout ‘Long Live Gorbachev!”. Here it is:

The Gorbachev ad run in a number of male luxury lifestyle magazines. My copy of the Monocle from February 2008 displays it with an inscription below the picture, which reads: ‘A journey brings us face to face with ourselves. Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference’. Futher below it says: Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International (an environmental charity started by Gorbachev). It is a fine, understated advert, which has probably brought some proceeds to the Green Cross, and which is no flashier than the set of Marc Jacobs-designed set of Louis Vuitton trunks (pictured) that were dragged across India by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s recent Darjeeling Limited.

© Dina Iordanova
2 May 2009

*It happened in October 2007, in Hong Kong, in the afternoon. I was at the at Holliday Inn on Nathan Road, in the very center of materialism, a place surrounded by innumerable shops selling everything imaginable, from Tahitian pearls to h-tech electronics. The buffet at the Viennese Cafe is one of the best deals in town, with mountains of raw oysters, a delicacy of an acquired taste for the local Chinese who mount piles of them on their plates and keep coming for more as soon as more emerge from the kitchen.

** Media reactions to the ad mostly focused on the fact that the magazine that shows from the half-opened bag, alongside the pale-salmon shade of FT, features an article on Litvinenko’s murder. NYT called it a ‘visual joke’.

*** Some of the commentators refer to other situations, like an imaginary Jello ad which plays on the images of an exchange between Dalai Lama and the Pope and somebody else wonders what are Gorbachev’s real motives to do such a shoot, probably not money — precisely like one wondered back then what were his real motives undermining the communist system. Like it is typical for comment press, all sorts of comments and agendas come to the surface here — touching on issues of spirituality, capitalism, aesthetic, commercialism and so on, but there is no unique voice to dominate the discourse. Someone remarks that the ‘sfumato’ quality of the image is the reason for triggering a specific unacknowledged nostalgia. Someone who has even copyrighted his comment speaks of Mephistophelian quality of the photo? The post is made on Le Vendredi 21 Septembre 2007, 7h44 in reference to the NYT article Gorbachev Made Me Buy it. on July 26, 2007, pre-announcing it.