Political portraits in the media age

In the age of Instagram and rolling news, how should artists depict world leaders? And is there any point? Jason Farago reflects on the problems of political portraiture.

She gazes into the middle distance, eyes squinting, brow furrowed. Her brown hair is slightly flecked with grey and the ends of her bob twirl upward. Her mouth is pursed slightly, and one of her front teeth is visible – biting down on her lower lip as if she’s brainstorming an idea, or holding back frustration.

Condoleezza Rice is not much in the news these days, but the beguiling, almost unreadable portrait of the former US Secretary of State by Belgian painter Luc Tuymans retains all its power and awkwardness nearly a decade after its creation. The Secretary of State, modestly scaled and painted in a narrow, almost sickly palette of lavender and grey, was first seen in 2005 at David Zwirner Gallery in New York. Soon after it entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where it has mostly been hidden away in storage. Now, at last, it’s on view again at the Menil Collection in Houston – part of a substantial new exhibition that places Tuymans’s paintings among earlier works of art history, ranging from ancient Egyptian mummy portraits to modern masterpieces by Picasso and Warhol.

Many of Tuymans’ reticent, pessimistic portraits depict historical figures, from the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba to the SS chief Heinrich Himmler. But The Secretary of State is uncommon – in Tuymans’ career and in contemporary art more generally – as a major painting of a politician while she’s still in power. The rarity of political portraiture in contemporary art marks a substantial shift. Until well into the 19th Century painters played a significant role in the formation of political authority; painted images were indispensible to express wealth, sovereignty, or military might. But with the invention of photography and the rise of mass media, politicians could be responsible for their own images – in many cases, politicians are now more sophisticated than artists in their understanding of the power of images – and the political portrait fell into decline.

Fine artists may criticise contemporary politicians, as Andy Warhol did with his furious portrait of Richard Nixon. They may treat them as celebrities, as James Rosenquist did with his looming portrait of John F. Kennedy. But they rarely look at them in a manner than can help us understand the nature of political power. Increasingly, the job of depicting power has fallen to official photographers, and most of these are pretty dry. (Though the contrasts among them can be deeply revealing: compare Nicolas Sarkozy’s monarchical portrait, in the library of the French presidential palace, to François Hollande’s relaxed, Instagram-like outdoor snap.) Yet as politics has become more image-saturated and more personality-driven, ambitious painters paradoxically have less of a role to play than ever before in unpacking the significance and the contradictions of our leaders.

Visual overload

It’s understandable, I guess. We are living through an explosion of images, and what can an artist offer in the face of 24-hour news, ubiquitous cameraphones, infinite digital archives, and instant worldwide circulation? Politics takes place right inside that contemporary flood of images – and, in consequence, artistic depictions of politicians now tend to feel dutiful or behind-the-times. What was the point, one had to wonder, of Chuck Close’s photorealist tapestries of Barack Obama, no more illuminating than a million snaps on Google Images? Do Yan Pei-Ming’s smudgy epic-scaled paintings of Obama and John McCain reveal anything that a Vanity Fair cover does not? And this is not to mention the traditionalist, sometimes explicitly anti-modern portrait painters who, far from the art world’s main drag, continue to depict politicians as if nothing ever changes: witness Tony Blair as a glowering headmaster, or David Cameron as though painted by John Singer Sargent on a bad day.

Political portraiture today works only when – like Tuymans – artists accept that images circulate in a totally different way from before and factor in that transformation. When Tuymans decided to paint Rice, he didn’t write a polite letter to the US State Department. What would be the point? Instead, he went on the website of a Condoleezza Rice fan club, downloading his source directly from the image stream in which politics takes place today. Tuymans’ resultant painting is closely cropped, as in a photograph. But it’s cropped in an arbitrary manner – she’s a little to the left of the canvas and her chin is cut off – as if to remind us that this is just one image among millions. The Secretary of State is also a relatively small painting: about 60cm x 45cm (23in x 18in), or about the size of a typical computer monitor or a modest flat-screen television. When you experience it in the gallery you want to get right up to it to see the detail, but the painting just recedes into strokes of anemic pinks and greys.

We already experience the world of politics almost exclusively through images. An artist isn’t required to make another one. What artists can do, and what Tuymans does so brilliantly, is call into question the manner in which those images gain meaning and force. They can show how power is exercised through images, or compounded by images, or transformed by images, or obscured by images. The Secretary of State is much more than a depiction of a world leader; it depicts a world leader and the entire network of representations in which she operated. That may be clearer now than it was in 2005, when Rice was still one of the most powerful people on the planet. To viewers in Houston today, Tuymans’s real subject should be unmistakable: our contemporary landscape of images, where a politician can be seen everywhere and yet we still have no idea who she is.

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