Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Obama Portraits

The first time I saw images of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery I was surprised, maybe even a little shocked… but that was probably the way some people felt when we elected our first Black President, even those who desperately wanted him to win.  So why not make the portraits different as well?

Then I remembered where Barack Obama took his wife on their first date, The Art Institute of Chicago.  I remembered that with particular fondness because finally there was at least one politician who cared about the Arts … how very rare. No wonder they had their favorite artists.

Why do so few people, except school groups, go to the National Portrait Gallery? Because the portraits are usually extremely stodgy and boring.  Here you can see other Presidential portraits, . They are not very exciting. There are small differences between them but not major ones with two notable exceptions when Elaine de Kooning painted JFK and Chuck Close did Bill Clinton.

The artists the Obamas requested to do their portraits are, not surprisingly, also African American.   Kehinde Wiley, who painted the President, and and Amy Sherald who painted the First Lady are not strangers to the politics of race and would want to do something different that would stand out for their sake as well as their sitters.  Even in the best of all possible worlds, when all visitors are “color blind”, these portraits would stand out as the First Black President and his First Lady.

The President is set against greenery, and according to the New York Times the flowers have symbolic meaning for him.  The African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine represents Hawaii where he was born; Chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago where he first got into politics and where he met Michelle.  Some said that Obama seemed too aloof as President, always the academic.  While that was never my feeling, here you see him as a contemplative individual, always taking his decisions very carefully in spite of the many frustrations!

 The Times describes Amy Sherald’s take on Michelle Obama as emphasizing an “element of couturial spectacle and rock-solid cool”.  I do understand these aspects but also the seriousness with which Michelle saw her role in the White House.  Not trying to do her husband’s job but doing something just as important speaking for the young, as far as education and health are concerned.  I have hardly any interest in haute couture and though I am supposed to have heard of Michelle’s dress designer Michelle Smith, I have not.  I can note, however, that this dress has style and most importantly to me is that it is different but tasteful and distinguished.

I can also perfectly understand why a little girl could be mesmerized by Michelle’s portrait.  Not sure that a young child would think, “Oh, this is a woman who was the first Black First Lady”.  I think that the monochromatic effect of the work makes it all the more powerful, as the First Lady was in her own way.  Here is the photo of two-year-old Parker Curry, taken by another museum visitor Ben Hines.

I don’t think that the Obamas had in mind what their portraits would do for the National Portrait Gallery but attendance at the museum has been up 300%.  I doubt that any other Presidential portraits inspired that kind of attendance  when they were unveiled.  How refreshing mixing politics and art with the emphasis on the latter while serving the former!

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