He wears a marvelous red coat. It is snug at his waist but opens loosely at the chest to let the billow of white shirt ruffles breathe. Nested atop the white ruffles is a proper black tie, its relaxed knot allowing him to greet those he passes with a decadent smile. Tawny gloves secure his two tools: a handheld monocle and a long knobbed cane. Both articles extend the gesture of his swinging arms, setting a rhythm that could inspire dancing.
White tights give his scissor-wide stride elastic propulsion. Tall black boots barely linger on the ground. A top hat makes him something solid and lasting. This is Striding Man, the symbol of Johnnie Walker scotch whiskies.
Striding Man has grown on me as a subject of artistic inquiry. My father got a figurine of him a few years back and I began innocently sketching from it. His image is immediately captivating, but why? On the surface those bold colors, snappy dressing and active stance are handsome, though I found him more interesting beneath that immediate image. He’s a peculiar icon because he seems able to easily detach from the brand of Johnnie Walker. It’s as though he exists independent of his alcoholic product, but has chosen to temporarily lend to it his personality. His sponsorship of the whiskey feels circumstantial. The drink is fitting of him rather than the other way around. He is definitely not defined by it. His representation in advertisement reduces him to a two-dimensional pose. While these prints generally capture the pose walking right to left or left to right, his three-dimensional sculpted form reveals how dynamic that gesture is from almost every angle. Turning him every which way to draw and paint his likeness, I always find that same expression of jolly hurry. Every angle finds a balance of curving lines that tell his brisk speed and attitude.
The Striding Man stride is a pose that is not particular to he alone. It summons the gestures of many marchers: band leaders, Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, the Gestapo, to name a few. It’s a gesture that opens up the form to create a commanding energetic force. It is both determined and playful to demonstrate that one can elevate the functional act of walking to a performative level.
Thanks to Ebay we’ve added eight more sculptures of Striding Man to that original, making an outright infantry of red white and black. Each of these nine are different, not just in their painted surfaces, but each mold has, so far, been individual. This thrills me to think how that initial power of his image has spawned so many imitators, myself included. I think of how the power of advertizing can outlast its purpose. Striking images or jingles infect the mind and toy with the imagination. A seemingly silly scene from the Ghostbusters movie comes to mind as a demonstration of this effect. At the climax of the film, an evil spirit bids the ghostbusters to choose the form of their executioner and before they can agree on a foe, an advertisement for the State Puff Marshmallow Man pops into one of their heads. This errant thought triggers the arrival of the Marshmallow Man’s monstrous incarnation. These advertising icons indeed have strong staying power and out of context they can express an entirely different message. Like the ghostly Marshmallow Man, Johnnie Walker’s Striding Man can be a haunting personality when he has no whiskey to sell. His purpose becomes ambiguous and his gloating smile a little treacherous.
The idea of a Striding Man seems to be a literal illustration of Johnnie Walker’s name without immediately having a meaningful connection to the product of whiskey. In recent years the creative department at Johnnie Walker has built the campaign around the Striding Man motto “Keep Walking”. Under these terms, Striding Man is not just a visual pun, but something of a crusader. His march is a metaphor of ambition, striving towards the unknown improvement of the self. By extension the whiskey should be assumed to help one achieve that goal. His face, however, looks like that of someone who has arrived already. This is strangely accurate for a portrayal of imbibing. The drinker aims to get somewhere in his or her sensory state that cannot be gotten by any physical transportation. Intoxication is an inward journey to alter the self or at least its perceptions. There is the illusion of moving towards something, of building something. As an icon, Striding Man is immortal and his journey is never meant to end. To me, Striding Man represents pure legacy, like a ghost. He is built for forward movement, he demonstrates movement, he is named for movement and yet his body never changes. In print and sculpture he is fixed to the idea of movement without ever moving.
In Greek mythology the mortal Prometheus is punished by Zeus for having brought the fire of the gods to mankind. Zeus had him chained to a rock where daily an eagle came to peck out his liver, and daily his liver regrew. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is a painting by Rubens depicting this torture. The painting makes this story eerily real as the whole story is frozen in the space of the image. The painted eagle is always there, beak to liver, as poor Prometheus is always recoiling in pain. At once, the gruesome scene shows both a moment in time, and the entire infinite cycle of pain. We carry time in our eyes with our unceasing imagination. This is why Striding Man appeals to me so much as a character for observation. While the image of the dandy man-about-town is certainly less striking than the gore of Prometheus he helps me question my sense of time in a similar way. He exists in the moment as an arrogant liquor promoter, but also as his own legacy, red, white and black, striding endlessly forward.