Not many 22 year olds can claim to be at the forefront of a global fashion movement, but that's where Spanish artist Ignasi Monreal finds himself.
In spite of his youth, Monreal is already well known in creative circles, having worked with people and brands such as Christian Dior, FKA Twigs, Swide (Dolce & Gabbana's online magazine) and Jonathan Anderson. However, it is his work with Gucci that has really propelled him into the spotlight.
Since taking over at Gucci in 2015, creative director Alessandro Michele has been merrily turning the brand on its head, completely reimagining every aspect of the business from the ground up. Gone is the high-octane glamour of Tom Ford, replaced instead with Michele's highly personal but deeply appealing vision of hipster geek chic – a seemingly haphazard style of dressing infused with eclectic, thrift-shop-inspired elements. Michele is a self-confessed magpie; his inspirations are wide-reaching and thrown together in a process that he likens to mixing a drink in a cocktail shaker.
Into this world stepped Monreal, who was discovered by Michele via Instagram. The Spanish artist was invited to join Michele’s #GucciGram project, a platform where artists are encouraged to create original artwork inspired by Gucci. Although barely 20 at the time, Monreal was seemingly unfazed by the proposition. “Gucci approached me and it was really a no-brainer to say yes,” he says.
“I absolutely adore Gucci’s current aesthetic and philosophy; it’s very naturally up my street and it was an incredible experience to be able to interpret the Gucci world,” he adds.
Monreal's contribution was a painted pastiche of American advertising, featuring a woman with a blonde bob sitting behind a desk, with the words "Text FUTURE to 1921" urgently flashing on and off in one corner and a stream of text running along the bottom of the frame, too quickly to read. Smart, sassy and highly relevant (1921 is the year that Gucci was founded), Monreal's artwork clearly struck a chord with Michele. Soon after, Monreal was asked to design the print edition of the 2017 Gucci Gift Catalogue.
Months in the making, the coffee-table tome that Monreal delivered was entirely hand-painted and filled with beautifully bizarre images, including mermaids on iPhones, women sporting kittens as hats, and boys wearing Gucci plasters and golden laurel wreaths. A total of 80 spellbinding illustrations presented Gucci accessories and ready-to-wear pieces (the book is, after all, made to showcase the Italian brand’s products).
Monreal’s skill lies in his ability to mix accuracy with offhand surrealism. One painting has a pair of men’s shoes lying casually on a car-park floor, as a winged horse lazes in the background. Elsewhere, models have golden halos and are surrounded by cherubs, while a reclining tiger has a woman’s head, clad, if you will, in diamanté chain mail. Impossibly cool and quirky, the book is described by Gucci as “a world of Greek mythology, strange characters and alchemy”.
In spite of the hand-painted finish, Monreal’s technique relies on new technologies. Rather than painting physically onto a canvas, he employs what he describes as “digital painting”, using Photoshop, a stylus and custom-made brushes. “I haven’t really trained to do this anywhere,” he says. “I started to experiment with digital painting when I was still at school. It was the time of the Photoshop hype, and I felt it was cooler than painting with paints.”
Describing his work as geek-meets-fashion, this self-confessed gamer has his own distinctive style. “I work very intuitively,” he tells me. “Sometimes ideas come to me naturally, sometimes I do go back to my very messy desktop for some references, and then I mix them in with whatever is on my mind. There isn’t really a process.”
This open-minded approach trickles down to the work itself. When he was asked to do the 2018 Gucci spring/summer advertising campaign, for example, Monreal looked to the unlikely inspiration of the 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. While Bosch's original medieval works are populated with terrifying demons and visions of the afterlife, Monreal's versions are filled with lamb-headed models and curious giraffes. Another image has John Everett Millais's famous painting Ophelia (1852), now reimagined as a red-haired woman floating among lily pads, dressed in a chartreuse sequinned Gucci dress.
“I knew that Alessandro Michele really loves these paintings,” Monreal explains. “And so do I. Both artists really influenced me over the years, so I thought it could be a nice little homage to them.”
The two main figures in the campaign are taken from Arnolfini Portrait by the 13th-century painter Jan van Eyke, but transformed into a handsome couple in gilt embroidery. Elsewhere, a forked snake's tongue extends from the sole of a Gucci trainer and a bespectacled owl is flanked by two purple-clad dogs.
Monreal's fearless approach also led to him being invited to collaborate on a line of T-shirts for Gucci, which went on sale in April and are available online. These added into the mix even more diverse elements, such as David Hockney-style portraits, English Romanticism and even the 1950s kitsch classic The Green Lady by Vladimir Tretchikoff.
“I try to look at a lot of things, stay cultivated, look at art, the current and the masters. I love computer games, Japanese animation. So I guess my artworks are really a mix of all that imagery accumulated over the years, with my own spin on it,” Monreal explains.
“I guess the amount of realness and imagination really depends on the painting, but I think the balance is quite important here, as you do want to make it feel believable and relevant. I don’t paint from photographs, so the time I spend on each painting really varies on how complex it is. Sometimes it can be a week.” As for knowing when enough is enough, he says: “It’s really just a sensation, and you are lucky when you get it.”
Monreal is playing his cards close to his chest when it comes to talking about the future. “I am working on a few projects at the moment, but not sure I can reveal it all,” he says. “I just did an installation with Kartell for Salone del Mobile, which was a really nice experience and completely different aesthetically to what I did for Gucci. I am also very much looking forward to a bigger personal project.”
While Monreal is taking the world by storm, last year also saw the release of the world's first hand-painted feature film, Loving Vincent. It would appear that painting is very much back in vogue. "In that context, I am extremely grateful to Gucci and Alessandro Michele for entrusting a painter with such a big assignment," says Monreal. "I think it really changed people's approach to this medium. It feels relevant again. It is an important message to send to the younger generation, I think."