The Osborne Bull: Advertising As Art

El Mundo / el Dominical, Madrid, and The European  London, 1994 (2,300 words)
Versión en español  


Looking at advertising as art – an approach complementary to, but distinct from, pop art's use of advertising symbols – got under way with Marshall McCluhan's theoretical work. Museums in New York, London, Paris and Milan have all built shows around the theme. One of them, Pub, a 1990 exhibition in the Centre Pompidou, was a landmark. In this museum world the Osborne bull has been seen as a key work for some time. But on home ground nobody suggested recognising it as public art.

Sir Terence Conran / "French Modernist bus-stops and pissoirs, or England's white horses cut into chalk hillsides, would be the most relevant comparisons …"

Elsewhere, in the United States, corporate flagship architecture has been serving as static advertising since the 1920s. New York's Chrysler building is one example among many legally protected for their aesthetic value.

But these urban icons are still not quite the same as the bulls."French Modernist bus-stops, pissoirs, and England's white horses cut into chalk hillsides would be the most relevant comparisons," comments Sir Terence Conran, founder of London's Design Museum, which opened in 1989. He set up both Habitat and Conran, stores that have revolutionised the design world since the 1960s, and he has long defended the possibility of design as art.

He argues that the commercial origin of the bulls is irrelevant to their artistic value.

"The bulls' absolute association with Spain makes the fact that they were adopted by a company as a symbol a matter of minor importance. There is a moment at which commercial context disappears, just as it did in Toulouse Lautrec's work. And after all, nobody in Spain would ever suggest the Church remove the crosses and crucifixes scattered around the countryside."


The fight to keep the bulls standing faces two problems. One is that of Osborne's own efforts, which, say critics, tighten rather than loosen the bull's associations with their brand.

Another is the link some see with bullfighting. Osborne, however, have denied that ever since the 1960s, when the Spanish Ministry of Tourism banned posters showing bullfights, or the fighting bull, from tourist promotion.

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