I’ve recently been watching The Crown, a beautifully-polished miniseries about the age-old tension between the individual and the office. Elizabeth is a normal woman; Queen Elizabeth is a quasi-divine figurehead. You get the idea.
One episode tells the story of Graham Sutherland’s official portrait of Winston Churchill. In the series, Churchill is something of a bathetic figure, a once-great man refusing to come to terms with his age and frailty. He hates Sutherland’s portrait, and destroys it.
This narrative serves the broader structure of the series, where the Crown – the symbol of royalty and empire – strives to be noble and above the fray, while the government deals with profane reality. The prime minister is a here-today-gone-tomorrow politician; the royal family is (or aspires to be) timeless.
But really Churchill was acting out exactly the same tension as the Queen feels throughout the series. He knows that he’s an old man – but he’s also a lion, the hero who saved the world from Hitler, the greatest Prime Minister in a great nation’s great history. When it comes to an official portrait, he has no interest in verisimilitude; all he cares about is posterity.
With a grand official portrait, of course, the two-way tension that we see in The Crown becomes a three-way tension. You want to represent the person; there’s a need to represent the office; and then there’s always the artist’s desire to create a lasting work of art. Unless you’re Diego Velázquez, you’re never going to be able to nail all three.
Which brings me to the Obamas’ official portraits, by Kehinde Wiley (who painted Barack) and Amy Sherald (who painted Michelle).
What’s striking about both of these portraits is that faced with the classic trilemma – “personal, official, artistic, pick two at most” – both artists opted to drop the personal. Both of these paintings would look very much at home in a museum show; both of these paintings would equally look very much at home in a gallery of grandees from the past and present. What we’re looking at here is the President and the First Lady of the United States of America. We’re not looking at a nice person to have a beer with.
That’s a big change! Because if you look at the last couple of official presidential portraits (Clinton, Dubya), the “personal” part is the only thing they even attempted. Neither is remotely Presidential, and neither really makes a stab at artistic importance. (The last artist to do that was Elaine de Kooning, who also kept the personal aspect, dropping the official trappings of the presidency.)
The difference, of course, is that the Obamas made history by being the first black couple to attain the presidency. Previous presidents can choose to drop the burden of their presidency the minute their successor is sworn in. Obama, by contrast, will be America’s historic first black president for centuries to come: he’s going to be a historic figure for as long as he lives.
What’s more, both portraits were painted by black artists – and both artists have made their name by painting everyday black folks in a heroic, larger-than-life manner. Here we are, look at us, we’re just as worthy of your gaze as any emperor or potentate. African-American artists represent in many ways the last bastion of formal portraiture in the US contemporary art world, and so it would be very weird if they dropped that formality the minute they painted the president.
I haven’t seen either painting in the flesh, so I’m not going to render a final judgment on what I think of these two works, but it’s certainly clear that both of them raise the bar significantly from the dismal standards of recent presidential portraits. And I will divulge that Sherald’s portrait is the new wallpaper on my iPhone – I really love the Op-Art dress, the simple blue background, and the overall strength of the composition.
As for Wiley’s portrait, it’s very canny. Famous-by-art-world-standards is not the same thing as being famous, and Wiley has reached a massive new audience today. If Wiley succeeds in making the leap from art-world celeb to actual celeb, this portrait will be what does it. He’s preserved the nobility of the presidency while at the same time bringing his trademark technique to honor the most important African-American of the century. His auction values can only go up from here.