The art of a President Trump state visit

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

image copyrightDrew Angerer/Getty Images

A current family fad is playing that word-association game in which you respond to the previous player's word with a relatable one of your own, eg me: "Annoying." Son: "Dad." Wife: "Bald eagle."

And so on. We've played a lot recently, such that I've started to react to the daily news in a similarly tangential way, where related but seemingly random thoughts pop into my head over and above more conspicuous concerns.

For instance, while everybody else was discussing the significance of a potential state visit to the UK by President Trump, I had two immediate thoughts in my mind:

  1. He's going to absolutely love the White Drawing Room in Buckingham Palace
  2. What work of art might he bring as a gift for the Queen?

No need to dwell on point one.

One look at the photographs of Donald Trump's Manhattan Penthouse in Trump Tower confirms George IV's extravagant tastes and those of the current US President are simpatico.

The art question is harder (should that be his choice of gift).

As potentially treacherous presents go, giving a work of art to someone you don't know is right up there with buying underwear for a work colleague or deodorant for your mother-in-law: the likelihood of causing offence and/or embarrassment is high.

Taste in art is a hard one to call, as the well-meaning Germans found out in 2015, when they attempted to combine their penchant for modernist expressionism with Her Majesty's passion for horses and family life.

image copyrightJesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images
image captionThe Queen seemed bemused by the gift of a painting of her and her father, George VI

It fell to President Joachim Gauck to present the painting by Nicole Leidenfrost to the Queen during her fifth state visit to Germany.

The president stood proudly to the side of the easel on which the painting rested.

It depicted the Queen as an eight-year-old girl sitting on a blue horse while her father, George VI, held its reins.

Mr Gauck smiled enthusiastically, made a gesture with his left arm in a magician's "ta-da" sort of way, and invited the British monarch to inspect the splendid piece.

The Queen's response was, shall we say, muted.

She looked over to the Duke of Edinburgh with a bemused smile on her face and a question in her eye that appeared to be asking if this was a practical joke.

Her husband leant in to look at the picture, held his position, and said nothing, leaving his wife with the task of filling the awkward silence.

"It's a strange colour for a horse," she said.

The German president laughed charmingly but unconvincingly, as did others in attendance.

"And that's supposed to be my father, is it?" Her Majesty enquired.

image copyrightSpencer Platt/Getty Images)
image captionThe Trump Tower in New York was built on the site of an art-deco department store

That hurt. But Mr Gauck remained calm and courteous and duly confirmed the figure on the left was meant to be her father.

"Don't you recognise him?" asked Prince Philip encouragingly.

"No," replied the Queen.

The chances of President Trump trotting off in the same direction and opting for a German expressionist aesthetic are slim.

This is a man who once described a painting by Chris Ofili featuring the Virgin Mary amid cut-up backsides from pornographic magazines as "degenerate," which is a loaded word to choose to describe an artwork, as it was so infamously used by the Nazis to describe Jewish and German expressionist paintings, which they exhibited and mocked in the 1937 Degenerate Art show.

Art deco is out too, even though the American president is a New Yorker and has therefore spent his life surrounded by some the greatest examples of it in it the world.

My grounds for this assertion go back to an incident in 1980 when he was about to demolish the Bonwit Teller Department Store on Manhattan's 5th Avenue in order to build Trump Tower.

Before the wrecking balls swung into action, he was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to save the art deco bas-reliefs on the building's facade.

Newspaper reports from the time claim he said he would, but then he did not - later explaining to the press (having allegedly taken on the persona of an invented PR man called John Barron - a surname he would later give his son as a Christian name) there were too many health and safety issues to overcome.

image copyrightPhoto by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
image captionPresident Trump has inspired a number of works of art

As for modern art, I think I can confidently say the president is not a huge fan on the whole.

In his book Art of the Deal, he said: "I've always felt a lot of modern art is a con."

This could explain why he missed out on what would have been a great art deal in 1981, when he rejected Andy Warhol's series of Trump Tower screen-prints the artist had made for him on spec (Warhol said: "Mr Trump was very upset that it wasn't colour coordinated.")

I think baroque could be his thing.

It has everything he seems to like.

It is big, sweeping, grand, historic and tumultuous.

It has the Louis XIV kitschy campness he goes for.

Better still, it is dramatic.

President Trump is a showman; he understands the power of the spectacle.

It is no surprise to me that he flirted with a career as a Broadway producer in his early 20s, and perfectly possible that he considers his work in property development as a more lucrative form of theatre, with his enormous buildings providing the set for urban dramas to unfold in and around.

So, a baroque offering that is all about scale and showmanship - I suppose he could revisit his onetime collaboration with the Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, whose colossal statue of Christopher Columbus he planned to make the totemic landmark of his West Side Yards development in New York.

He told the New Yorker magazine in that "it's got $40m [£30m] worth of bronze in it" and the artist was "major and legit".

image copyrightRAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
image captionJeff Koons' sculpture Puppy. Might something like this grace Buckingham Palace?

Most importantly perhaps, it was 6ft (1.8m) taller then the Statue of Liberty, itself a whopping work of art that was given to American by the French as a state gift.

In the end, New York rejected Tsereteli's statue, so did Boston and Miami.

It was finally erected in Puerto Rico last year.

But that took years, and Donald Trump may have only months before his visit. So, what to do?

Maybe he could pop round to Jeff Koons's studio in New York.

Here is a contemporary American artist in touch with his baroque side, who has even exhibited at Versailles, and whose artistic vision is to "communicate with the masses" - a populist manifesto I imagine to be close to the president's heart.

What's more, he makes massive sculptures and loves dogs nearly as much as the Queen.

Proof for which can be found in his famous 40ft (12m) high plant-encrusted sculpture of a West Highland terrier puppy (1992), which he could reconceive in 2017 for the Queen as a 50ft (15m) high corgi that would take pride of place at the front of Buckingham Palace.

Job done.

Alternatively, the president could scale back on this ambitious plan and ask Koons to make a corgi doorstop instead.

It might not generate the same amount of column inches, but at least it should receive a warmer welcome than the unfortunate blue horse.

Related Topics

More on this story