Feature picture © Kehinde Wiley
I am a little late to the party. Many people, most more qualified than I am, have reacted to the Obama Portraits. The simultaneous broadcast of the unveiling across most news channels surely made this a momentous occasion, and this is probably the deepest many of the fawning or critical commentators on Facebook have engaged with painting. Seldom do we find high art to be so talked about. Not even Salvador Mundi, the most expensively auctioned painting ever, generated this much buzz.
Of course, as with most contemporary art, a common punching-bag of our pop-infused public, not all the buzz has been positive. Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama has been commonly derided as “not looking like her at all,” as if a painting’s legitimacy hinges on its likeness to reality—something I thought most of us had gotten over half a century ago, given the flocks that swarm around the Monets in our public collections. But despite all that, I understand the sentiment. The president and the first lady are potent symbols in the public imagination. The fidelity of their likenesses matters because the nuances of their expressions mean something to us: the embracing smile of Michelle Obama and the sometimes aloof but always empathic gaze of Barack Obama signaled the empathy that defined much of their administration. Despite their more questionable policies (mass deportations and drone warfare come to mind immediately), the world and much of the American public valued the Obama administration because we believed that they cared.
In this respect, the Wiley and Sherald paintings are disappointing. While the paintings are visually distinct from the neo-classicism and quasi-social realism of past presidential portraits, they (Kehinde Wiley’s portrait in particular) do not actually challenge the tradition of presidential portraiture as much as to coat it in a superficially palatable and trendy aesthetic.
Presidential portraits in the United States are an obvious offshoot of similar traditions in Europe, where rich powerful patrons commission portraits to flaunt their material possessions, their aristocratic pedigree, and, most importantly, their political capital. This particular strain of portraiture proved especially popular during the colonial times. Portraits such as those of Sir Frank Swettenham (an especially influential Governor of the Malayan Straits Settlements in the early 20th century) by John Singer Sargent showed the hubris of these colonists, encapsulated by their firm grip on coveted local fabrics and their allusions to worldliness through their over-sized globes. It makes one wonder what kind of man needs a globe almost as big as he is to feel good about controlling one of the most important British crown colonies? It is hard to find out since while portraits such as this may depict their human sitters in a grand and majestic way, they do nothing to reveal the character of the person in the picture. Sargent depicted Swettenham’s gaze as disinterested and proud, lest we forget that we are in the presence of a great man and that we are unworthy of knowing his inner life. The late John Berger characterized the emotional condition of such portraiture subjects as simply “aloof and wary,” putting us at a distance. While we are to admire them, they are in no way interested in a mutual dialogue of seeing.
When commentators and critics heap praise on Wiley’s “art historical” knowledge, it is this colonial art history they are talking about. The hope then, is that Wiley makes subversive and critical turns in his visual treatment of this knowledge. Wiley’s regal and aristocratic treatment of African Americans has widely been seen in the way in which he turns the oppressive rhetoric of such portraiture against itself. The positions of power that have been so dominated by bland white faces are supplanted by those who they have historically dominated—ostensibly leading us to reimagine our conceptions of power and heroism. Even though Wiley’s depictions inverse the usual racist and classist caricatures of African American people, they are still essentially caricatures, albeit positive ones. That is all well and good when the subjects of Wiley’s paintings remained ordinary African Americans since these subjects functioned as anonymous actors on which Wiley could impose his thematic concerns—blank canvases unmarked by their individual histories apart from their shared blackness. However, Obama needs no majesty, as he was previously the most powerful man in the world. In effect, his personal achievements, as the president of the United States, strip away all the irony and social criticism that Wiley’s works usually entail. Obama needs no grandeur when his charisma has made him one of the most likable presidents in recent history. Wiley’s painting does nothing to help us see Barack Obama beyond what we already know. What is left is a limp portrayal of identity, tossed in the midst of symbolic flowers, which mean nothing more than their places of origin. And even then, after Obama’s term in office was plagued with accusations of identity, birth, and religion, do we really need Obama to be forever defined by the particulars of his origins?
To be fair, when the current state of social media demands you to have event-worthy portraiture, I can understand the choices Wiley made in painting Barack Obama. I can understand the need to simplify an extremely complex human being and distill him into what we already recognize and acknowledge. It works well for the three seconds that we get to experience the painting while scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. But it does not work well in conveying what we most admired about Obama, and the humanity that we saw him embody during his time in office. The painting of Barack Obama is merely a plastic figurine, defined by its labels.
Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama disappoints me for almost the opposite reason. If seen by itself, I would have liked the portrait. Composed with an obvious triangle, the portrait evokes a sense of transcendent beauty. The majesty of her accouterments incomparable to the serenity of her face, significant but light, as she rests on arms that support themselves like the best kind of architecture. Sherald achieves all of this with a deep understanding of the role of geometry in composition. Her previous works have reverberations of such poetry, but—perhaps lacking the help of Michelle Smith’s incredible dress—did not see such visual consummation. I agree with Jonathan Jones of the Guardian when he likened the work to Gustave Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) another painting that makes use of geometry to achieve a knee-weakening sense of beauty.
But when we think of the person that makes up the previous First Lady, the painting’s aggressive push towards transcendence is what makes it so unfulfilling. From what we know of Michelle Obama, it seems strange to me that someone who is known to be so warm, heartfelt and passionate would want to be seen as a sublime entity, aloof and beyond the realm of us mere mortals. I think the public has a point here. Amy Sherald did not paint Michelle Obama but instead painted who we wanted her to be, thereby reducing her to an idea. And while this idea is a worthwhile one, one of female power and capacity, it does a disservice to the wholeness of her person. This is compounded by the fact that Sherald’s oeuvre, unlike Wiley’s, actually contains many affective and intimate portraits, making her artistic decision here all the more disappointing.
The Obamas’ choice of artists for their portraits is undeniably a step in the right direction. Their embrace of contemporary art’s stylistic idiosyncrasies and social bent is consistent with the inclusiveness they sought during their administration. But the stylistic particularity of contemporary artists has their pitfalls. And despite the Obamas’ acceptance and open-mindedness towards more progressive forms of painting, it appears as if the artists they chose may not have sought to fully understand their subjects—choosing instead to impose their own artistic beliefs onto the bodies of their patrons.