The Obama Portraits

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Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, 2018. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery

It’s a pleasure to see people talking about art in the midst of our national traumas, and the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama are a good topic for discussion. Both portraits are worthy of discussion, and so here is my small contribution.

When I first saw them, in videos of the unveiling on social media, I thought that Barack Obama’s portrait, by Kehinde Wiley*, overwhelmed Michelle’s, by Amy Sherald. Wiley’s portraits are hard to compete against: the vibrant colors, the use of patterned backgrounds that challenge the foreground figure (a sort of realist all-over painting) make for bold statements. Sherald’s work is much quieter, but strong and gently assertive. Before long I began to see the advantages in each painting, and that they made a fascinating pair.

The flowers that dot the greenery make reference to Obama’s history – African blue lillies, jasmine (representing Hawaii), and chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago). I like to add my own twist: that his Presidency was greener, in more ways than one, than those of his predecessor or successor. The greenery curls around him slightly, preventing it from becoming just a backdrop, tying the man and the setting together. The solid wall of green makes a shallow picture plane, bringing Obama out toward us. It remains classically Kehinde Wiley, with adjustments appropriate to the subject.

The understated pose – Obama supposedly told Wiley, “I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon” – presents him as one of us, not heroic or hagiographic, but a common man in an uncommon job. Author Paul Staiti, writing in the Washington Post, compares Obama’s pose to that of Abraham Lincoln in a famous 1869 painting by George P. A. Healy. In Healy’s painting, Lincoln is looking to the side – Healy had previously painted Lincoln in that pose while conferring with military commanders. Obama looks out at us, making us part of his circle. He seems to be listening, getting ready to speak.

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Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald, 2018. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery

Michelle Obama’s portrait, by Amy Sherald, is quite different. Sherald is one of many fine African-American portraitists, in the vein of the late Barkley L. Hendricks .

Like Barack, Michelle sits looking out at us. Her expression is thoughtful and serious. She rests her chin on one hand, which lends a little casualness to her pose; Barack, by comparison, has both hands down, a slightly more “posed” posture. Her gown, by designer Michelle Smith of the fashion firm Milly, is flowing and dotted with abstract designs. I’m not being sexist here in singling out her clothes – Barack’s plain suit and shirt are quite unremarkable, and refer to nothing more than decades of bland menswear.

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The geometric design that recurs in Smith’s dress caught my eye immediately. My mind went to the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a community of African-Americans who, from the late 1800s to the present, have become well known for their creatively designed quilts. The example above, by Plummer T. Petway (1918-1983), will give you an idea. I don’t know if Michelle Smith had this in mind when she designed the dress, but it’s a worthy association.

Some writers have bent backward trying to explain Sherald’s use of grayscale in skin tones, simplifying the complexities of flesh down to a few shades of black and gray. Many of these explications seem iffy. I was reminded of the limited palette of some primitive American painters from Colonial days. I have nothing to support this theory, but I like the idea that Sherald is connecting to the country’s artistic history.

As I said at the start, it’s good to see people interested in art. At this time, when the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2019 proposal calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA Chairman Jane Chu’s statement on that can be read here) we need more than ever reminders that art is a part of our national identity and our ongoing discourse about who we are and what it means to be American.

*  I had intended to link to Kehinde Wiley’s website, but it was down at the time of this writing.

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John Perry Barlow

Poet, essayist, lyricist, and more, John Perry Barlow died on February 6, aged 70. I won’t go into his career and its interesting twists and turns. There are others far better qualified than I to do that. Just read these rules for living he wrote years ago:

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Berkshire Museum update

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The continuing saga of the Berkshire Museum’s ill-considered plan to sell off the best of its art collection to fund a “New Vision” that is largely bells and whistles (do I seem just a bit biased?) might be heading toward its conclusion. Legal wrangling has resulted in a collaboration between the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and the Museum. From their joint statement:

We are working together to resolve this matter, recognizing our shared responsibility for the collection of the Berkshire Museum and to the community the museum serves. We are committed to helping this museum secure its future.

This is very good news, and perhaps a sign that museum will not be crippled by its own management after all. The cards have been stacked against this plan from the start. Consider:

Gutting one of the museum’s collections is hardly a plan for the future; rather it is diminishing the museum for the benefit of short-term expenditure.

A lot of the “New Vision” is about new technology to enhance the visitor experience; such gadgets are by their nature doomed to a short life before technology becomes outdated or broken. Paintings last longer than apps or VR experiences.

There is no way to cast a positive light on such a sale, as has been shown by the near-universal condemnation of the plan – one more thing the Museum would have to recover from.

The Museum’s less than open approach to the plan and surrounding controversy has also damaged its reputation.

I have previously blogged about this mess here and here, and would like to offer a suggestion. (I stand by my previous assertions that Director Van Shields and at least some of the Board of Trustees should step aside.) Since these works have now become notorious or famous (your choice), should the sale of the art be abandoned once and for all, the works should be immediately installed in the museum, with their histories, and a few works borrowed from other museums for context. Of course, the Museum doesn’t have a curator for their art collection, and hasn’t for years (one more thing for the to-do list)… Turning the homecoming into a celebration is a gutsy move, as the paintings shouldn’t have left in the first place, but it gives the public a look at what has been saved. When life gives you lemons, don’t pretend you didn’t plant the lemon trees in the first place.

There are bound to be further developments.

Welles and Shakespeare

As I’m swamped with writing projects right now, I’ll ask a question and let you ponder it. Has anyone made films of Shakespeare’s plays as brilliantly as Orson Welles? His Shakespearean oeuvre, while small, is daunting in its excellence. Though he was frequently dogged by money troubles and unreliable distributors, his films are consistently riveting in their visuals. Consider:

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Macbeth, from 1948 (above)

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Othello, from 1951 (two images above)

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Chimes at Midnight, from 1966 (above)

Welles was good at surrounding himself with talented cinematographers, actors, and so on, but there is a consistent vein of style – a bit of expressionism – that runs through all three. From Macbeth, shot on intentionally stylized sets to the European locations used in the others, Welles is able to pick out striking locations. And if his adaptations are not word-for-word faithful – he added a character (“A Holy Father”) to Macbeth and assigned other characters speeches to him; Chimes at Midnight is an amalgam of five different plays – they are consistent in a Wellesian Shakespearean environment. The more refined films of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh (Branagh is far more Olivier’s heir than Welles’s) look like anyone’s films. All three share the stage as their first successes, but Welles’s staginess is a different animal completely from Olivier’s or Branagh’s. Was the stylization of radio drama – in which Welles excelled – a factor?

What do you think?

Birthday boy

Today (Jan. 19) is Edgar Allan Poe‘s 209th birthday. As time is running short this week I thought I’d show you some of the artists who have illustrated Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven. It’s not an easy piece to illustrate; the action takes place in one room, and the dialogue – monologue, really – takes place between a man and a bird. Regardless, its intense mood brought a number of artists to try their hand at depicting it.

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Sir John Tenniel illustrated it (above) and other works by Poe in 1858, when he was already famous as a cartoonist for Punch, but before his illustrations for Lewis Carroll‘s Alice books. The Raven lacks the satiric or whimsical qualities that suited Tenniel’s style, but he makes his best stab at it. To me, his raven looks more like some species of gull.

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Edmund Dulac (above) produced his own illustrations for Poe’s poems in 1912. As you can see, Dulac has based Poe’s tormented hero on Poe himself. In all the images I have seen of this illustration (admittedly, these are from Internet searches; I look forward to seeing a paper copy of the book) the bird itself runs off the top of the illustration. An interesting choice.

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Edouard Manet, (above) largely credited as one of the fathers of Impressionism, illustrated a bilingual edition in 1875, with the French translation by poet Stephane Mallarme. While evocative, it looks more like Manet’s hero is opening a window or a French door; the relationship between the figure, the bottom of the door, and the floor is hard to work out. The gentleman is distinctly French, and might be based on some one of Manet’s acquaintances.

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Gustav Dore‘s illustrated Poe (above) was published in 1884, though Dore died the previous year. Dore’s symbolism is strong here, and his detail-filled, somewhat old-fashioned style is well suited to the material. Among all illustrators, Dore is most willing to reach beyond the stated facts of the poem and instead capture the inner life of its narrator. Can you believe this was nine years after Manet’s?

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I’m starting to doubt my own sanity, or at least my memory. I recall that James Thurber, (above) cartoonist and author, produced a set of drawings for The Raven as part of his Famous Poems Illustrated series, first published in The New Yorker in 1939 – yet these drawings are not in the book. I cannot find any digital images of his drawings for The Raven. Am I imagining things? At any rate, here is a drawing from his Our Own Pet Department series, which will give you an idea of what a Thurber Raven would be like – if there is such a thing.

There have been countless allusions, verbal and visual, to Poe’s Raven in books, comics, and animation over the years, so many that a separate blog post would be needed to do them justice. Happy birthday, Mister Poe, wherever you are.

A few notes on admissions

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

I don’t want to be writing about this. As a blogger, I don’t always get to do the in-depth research needed to get to the bottom of a complex issue. So, I am reduced to putting down a few notes and observations, while urging you, if you’re interested, to look elsewhere.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, flagship of art museums in the US (one of the flagships, anyway) has changed its admissions policy. Out goes the former “suggested donation” policy. In it’s place, people with a New York state ID can pay what they wish, while all adult out-of-state visitors (and NYers without ID) must pay $25. The Met’s statement on the change is here; if you prefer the New York Times’ coverage, click here.

I oppose this policy for many reasons, but I’ll use this space to touch on some of the issues involved. For opinion, I am pretty well in line with New York Times critics Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith, who discussed the change here.

First, admission to museums should be free. This ought to be a goal of every museum. Museums are educational institutions, mostly non-profit, and charities under law.

Second, there is no such thing as a “totally free” museum. Someone is paying the bills, and the expense of hosting visitors. Met President Daniel Weiss, in this rather unsatisfactory interview on Hyperallergic (by which I mean Weiss’ answers are unsatisfying) says “The average visitor to this museum costs us about $42 dollars,” though he gives no breakdown of that number. The goal of non-profits is for operations to be funded by Trustees and donors. This, of course, includes government funding at the city, state, and federal level – so we all contribute, even if only a small amount. Your taxes help fund the Department of Education, but you don’t have to pay extra for your kid to attend public school.

Another number that caught my eye: according to Daniel Weiss, the Met makes 14% of its annual budget from admissions. This is a staggering number. Most museums I am aware of get a number around 6 or 7%. Weiss continues: “We are imagining, we are planning, that we’ll go from 14% of our budget, to about 16, or 17%.” That sounds like a big burden for visitors to carry; even bigger when it is clear that admissions revenue will not be enough stop the museum’s deficit problems.

Who bears the responsibility for the museum’s financial health? Trustees, of course. As we have seen in the cases of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (now called Newfields), the Berkshire Museum, and elsewhere, when a museum’s finances are not cared for, bad choices are made. Donors are especially fond of giving money for specific aims, when most often a museum’s most pressing needs lie in unrestricted funds. It is the unrestricted endowment that keeps the lights on, pays the salaries, and allows the admissions price to stay within affordable limits. (You should periodically go back and read my How the Art World Works series.) But donors want their name on a gallery, an acquisition fund, or fountains outside the museum. Weiss’s statement that it would not have been “morally…an appropriate question…” to ask David Koch to use some of the $65 million dollars he gave to renovate the plaza in front of the museum (which not bears Koch’s name, natch.) is baffling to me.

The admissions policy penalizes those without a NY state ID. It places a greater burden on those with little money. It represents a failure of the Trustees to step up and maintain the institution’s accessibility.

Do I expect the museum to backtrack and set things right? No. Perhaps it’s cynicism, or a sense that things are even more tilted to favor the wealthy these days. Maybe I just need to stop typing and take a nap.

BTW, anybody got a NY state ID I can borrow?

For a fresh look at the Met’s admissions, and why they’re not the problem, check out Felix Salmon’s blog here.

Sunsets

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Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio

It might seem strange to open the new year with a post about sunsets, as in many cultural traditions sunset signifies ending rather than beginning, but sunsets have acquired special meaning to me, in Winter most of all. I’ve chosen to illustrate this post entirely with paintings by Frederic Church (1826-1900) because a) he is a Connecticut native, like me, and b) he painted a great many sunsets.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Sunset, Bar Harbor, 1854 Collection of the Olana State Historic Site, New York

When my girlfriend and I lived in southern California, we were lucky enough to have an apartment with a private balcony – more to the point, a balcony that faced south. I got in the habit of going out around sunset, schedule permitting, and watching the changing light. Off to the right the sun was often red behind the hills, and as my gaze went left the sky turned deeper and deeper blue, and, on the lefthand horizon, black, with stars emerging. It became a ritual for me, a moment to center myself after whatever the day had brought.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight, 1858 The Rockefeller Collection of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – de Young, San Francisco CA

As enticing as landscapes are to artists, they are doubly so when in a state of transition. Sunrise and sunset (more often the latter, as artists seem uninclined to get out of bed early), and in stormy weather – all these are a series of changes rung upon the land, rarely the same way twice. Church painted stormy scenes, tranquil ones, but his twilit landscapes make up a significant portion of his works.

Although I am no landscape painter, I still go outside now and then and watch the light change. Each transition is a reminder of the specific moment, the transitory nature of light and time and experience. Like the new year, it arrives, then changes. Some change we can affect – and should – and others we can only watch and marvel at. (Well, and perhaps sketch or write notes for paintings.)

Happy New Year!