to be seen in every black church beginning next february pic.twitter.com/Sjj6n26Umu
— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) February 12, 2018
Yeah, I know Betty beat me to it, but it’s the dead hour so I’m gonna indulge myself. As someone who spent many, many weekends during my childhood investigating all the best public-access museums in New York City, I really like the new Obama portraits. They are, IMO, good art. And they are also good political statements — if you think that art is ever “distinct” from politics, you have not read much art history.
Most presidential portraits, even the “famous” ones, have a strong whiff of Sears Portrait Studio with a sidebar of Thomas Kinkade. They are not meant to inform, or to be a ‘true’ likeness of the president portrayed; they are meant to imitate/immortalize whatever the current power structure’s idea of Respectable Leadership looks like. For our modern era, that’s meant White Guy in Suit At His Office, looking self-consciously charming or vaguely constipated, depending on the whims of the sitter and the artist.
Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s portraits are so much not that. But of course, President and Michelle Obama were so much not what a lot of people expected from “our” president, either. Like their subjects, both pictures are striking and intelligent and impossible to ignore. And color-ful (you should forgive me saying). I think Wiley’s painting will end up in the (admittedly specialized) pantheon with Gilbert Stuart’s Washington and Matthew Brady’s Lincoln.
Also, the reactions from both Obamas, very cool:
Statement by President Obama (Part I): pic.twitter.com/rdxSF1sJFQ
— Al Giordano (@AlGiordano) February 12, 2018
Michelle Obama on her official portrait: "I'm also thinking about all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who in years ahead will come to this place and they will look up, and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall." pic.twitter.com/EGwPaiKJhA
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) February 12, 2018
The first African American painter of the first African American president is crying while thanking his mother for getting him paints while they didn’t have much, growing up in south central LA.
— laura olin (@lauraolin) February 12, 2018
The iconography of the Obamas has always been one of the most fascinating things about their public lives. Their deliberate and welcome assertions of blackness in privileged spaces continues here with striking portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. https://t.co/4G3TrgygiP
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) February 12, 2018
More werds, from professional art critics. Jerry Saltz, at NYMag:
… Wiley rises to the occasion, giving us a troubled, human, pure-of-heart Rock of Gibraltar seated on a hard wooden seat that hints at the bare-bones look of African tribal chairs. The president is seated in and among — not out front and center of — a verdigris overgrowth of flowers. He’s almost fighting for the stage that is already growing over him. But he remains. Real, insistent, a reminder or compass. By not resorting to his usual bravado and monumental, heroic grandiosity that tends to so elevate his subjects that the paintings become closer to kitsch, Wiley’s treatment of Obama allows the person and the ideas represented to bloom much more fully.
Seating the president lower this way, enmeshing him in an overabundant, highly colorful natural setting, sustains a much more mysteriously human presence, brooding, reconciling, not merely knowing, separate, but kindled with fiery curiosity, a simple inner elevation that brings us to the border of the ordinary and the extraordinary. It’s exactly the metaphysical place Obama embodied as president of all America. The pose and enclosing him this way will irk many who will see Obama being made too normal, small, not central, not in grandeur, not an imperial god. I think the picture is true to the way Obama carries himself. He’s clearly the central subject but not entirely central; there’s a lot going on around him to contend with, negotiate; he’s open to his surroundings, part of them, bigger than they are but not the only thing present. He’s still fighting for space. Wiley even gets some of Obama’s melancholy, his tranquilizing thoughtfulness, the whispering sense that he will not be smote…
Phillip Kennicott, at the Washington Post:
… [B]oth artists have stressed the importance of creating portraiture of African Americans that will reconfigure the canon and the museum in more inclusive ways. Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, remembers seeing Sherald engage with young African American girls at a gallery talk. “She bent down and looked at them and said, ‘I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.’ ” Wiley, too, has focused throughout his career on inserting black faces and figures into the traditional context of elite, aristocratic portraiture, although with ambiguous results: It is never clear whether the goal is to remedy the omission, or destabilize the tradition.
The two portraits render their subjects life-size, which underscores their historical importance and accomplishments. Although the artists worked independently of each other, and their works aren’t meant to be seen side by side (they will reside in different galleries when they go on view), they make a curious pairing. Both capture elements that their subjects carefully curated during their public life as president and first lady. A swelling vein on the left side of the president’s face, and the intensity of his gaze, suggest the “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” impatience that occasionally flashed from him, a marked contrast with the smiling and laughing photographic portraits by Chuck Close that have until now stood in for the official portrait in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition…
The Obamas’ potential to change the tone and political culture of this country was blunted by the persistence of that racism before and during their time at the country’s political apex. Now that they have left office, now that their fundamental decency is in high relief by contrast with the new political order, memory is refreshed. They look a bit older than the two people who carried so much collective fantasy of a different America with them to Washington nine years ago. That fantasy was premature and unrealistic, and it is only now clear how powerfully it animated the meanest impulses of those who reject it. But these portraits will remind future generations how much wish fulfillment was embodied in the Obamas, and how gracefully they bore that burden.
Sidebar, also from WaPo, fashion writer Robin Givhan: “The Michelle Obama portrait is striking — and so is the gown she wore for it. This is its story”. Stretch cotton poplin and side-seam pockets, yes!
Second sidebar, I am extremely glad Twitter finally pulled Paul Nehlen’s account before the unveiling. I hope it’s causing him severe emotional pain not to be able to share his ‘thoughts’.
shit Trump's gonna have his portrait done by that Jon McNaughton douche isn't he
— Zeddy (@Zeddary) February 12, 2018
(Only if someone else writes the check, because as I understand it McNaughton only works cash-up-front.)