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.
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.
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.