The Obama Portraits Part II

Michelle’s Sort-of-Portrait

Michelle Obama Portrait

And now for Michelle’s portrait. A disappointment. A designer piece, like the dress it depicts, from Michelle Smith’s fashion line, Milly. The dress is striking, a contemporary statement piece with its bold, graphic design. And that’s how I see Michelle. But I do not see her likeness. I see the shape of her face. The beginnings of a portrait. If I were First Lady, regardless of ego, I would expect my portrait to look like me, not just to represent me. But I’m not Michelle Obama.

Some reviewers claim that she and Amy Sherald chose the dress together. Others surmise that Michelle Obama picked it out and it was sent to Sherald as reference material. Interestingly, while most of Smith’s sketches are signed with the date and her initials, or a comment like, “Fall Line,” this dress is signed “XO.” Hugs and kisses?Michell Obama Michelle Smith Milly Dress

Sherald commented, “It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s geometric paintings. But Milly’s design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small remote black community in Alabama where they compose quilts in geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.” (Hannah Morrill, Elle, February 13, 2018.)

Interestingly, Smith herself says it was meant to be “a dress that Mrs. Obama could wear in her everyday life, as well as in this iconic portrait.” The designer adds, “It’s made of a stretch cotton poplin print in a clean, minimal, geometric print without a reference to anything past or nostalgic, which gives the dress a very forward-thinking sensibility—this is very Michelle Obama.” (Brooke Bobb, Vogue, February 12, 2018.) (Italics are mine.)

Michelle loved that the painting is iconographic. “As a young girl, even in my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined this moment,” she wrote on Instagram. “Nobody in my family has ever had a portrait — there are no portraits of the Robinsons or the Shields from the South Side of Chicago. This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about … so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways. I am so proud to help make that kind of history. ” (Brittany Packnett, The Cut, February 2018.)

Some History

Yes, she has made history. But I wish that someone had told Michelle that a good portrait should do both—look like the sitter and represent the sitter. As in Diego Rivera’s work, which struggled beneath the artist’s difficulty with foreshortening and likeness, it is the message that counts. Any problems with visual perspective or proportion became so embedded into his oeuvre as to be trade symbols. “Oh, that’s a Diego Rivera mural,” or “Look at that Amy Sherald painting.” They conjure imagery, concepts and politics—but not necessarily mastery of the human figure or portraiture.

Sherald’s signature gray fleshtone is a mixture of black and Naples yellow, which she says was suggested by a colleague to remove the silvery, flat tone of black-and-white. (A great hue idea I may borrow.) She dresses her figures in a variety of bright clothing, using a background of muted and blended or solid color. Amy Wong writes for Medium, “This is Sherald’s signature style. Her paintings of African Americans are anonymous. They resemble their subjects, but at the same time, they do not.” Sherald is quoted by Dorothy Moss of the National Portrait Gallery as saying, “Once my paintings are complete the model no longer lives in that painting as themselves. They have become something bigger, more symbolic. . .” Which is exactly why it is not a portrait.

Nor, to her credit, does she call herself a portrait artist.

Portrait artists have historically fudged their data, but not for her reasons. They had to or, as in the case of the last portrait of King Henry VIII, they would have been beheaded. (King Henry wanted to look younger and thinner. He sent the artist back to the drawing board several times. One can image what the king really looked like if his last portrait was flattering!) The portraitist’s job was to show royalty and the wealthy at their finest. It was designed to inspire awe and create a representation of power or valor. Still, anyone looking at the portrait should recognize the individual. Will people recognize Michelle in her portrait in 50 years? Will the American public be better educated on contemporary art in 50 years?

“Michelle is painted as if in a black and white photo,” Wong says. “Sherald has said that she does this to remove color as race.” What Sherald actually said was that she uses gray tones “to exclude the idea of color as race from my paintings by removing ‘color’ but still portraying racialized bodies as objects to be viewed through portraiture. These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.” (Joan Cox and Cara Ober, BMoreArt, November 29, 2017.)

Wong goes on to say, “Historically, black people have not had paintings to represent them. Only photos exist.” Wong is totally wrong. She took Sherald’s quote out of context. Wong apparently believes that only American images of black Africans exist in black-and-white photographs after the invention of the camera. While Sherald did say that she uses old black-and-white photos for inspiration, Wong missed Sherald’s operative word: “Narrative.” Wong should also have inserted, “American.”

One only has to look at one of hundreds of portraits of the biblical three kings after Jesus’ birth to find black Africans painted as they looked (i.e. not caricatures, as Wong insists). Black royalty in Europe, Egypt and central Africa has been represented in bas relief and with coins since the second century A.D. and in portraits since medieval times. For fun, check out this link, to read about a woman who researches black Tudors: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/black-tudors-60-seconds-with-miranda-kaufmann/

Wong goes further afield to say, “As for Michelle Obama’s portrait, there has not yet been a gallery in the Smithsonian that is devoted to showing the portraits of first ladies. After a temporary installation, Michelle’s portrait will most likely end up in storage. In this case, art follows life.” This is pure fiction. Anyone (except Wong) would have surmised that such an iconic portrait would be purchased and donated. It has been shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., where Sherald gave a talk, and now hangs in the Smithsonian.

To quote the Smithsonian website, “On February 13, 2018, the commissioned portraits of the 44th President, Barack Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama were installed in America’s Presidents and Recent Acquisitions, respectively. Mrs. Obama’s portrait has been relocated and can now be seen in the 20th Century Americans exhibition on the third floor.”

Ironic Icon

Sherald’s quote now becomes ironic. “… the model no longer lives in that painting as themselves. They have become something bigger, more symbolic. . .” Of course, Michelle Obama has now become a symbol of achievement for black, American women. But one has only to look at Sherald’s body of work to see that all of her paintings are those of individuals: One wears glasses. One is thin. One has fuller lips. One has a narrower jaw. One’s eyes are closer together. Each one is unique, as is Michelle; Sherald even gave her the blue fingernail polish she wore at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

We are, each of us, different. We are individuals. Sherald is painting individuals who represent the black community. But even as a whole, the community is not a collective. Because we have grouped human races into categories should not mean that we are interchangeable replicas.

A bit about Amy Sherald

 Sherald was raised conservatively and broke out of her fundamentalist religious upbringing, which led her to question her role in society as a black female. It was clear that white supremacy had laid the cultural groundwork, that social movements had changed it, but she felt she was past that, and did not want to be confined by contemporary, angry black narrative, either. Her figures exude a sense of self-assurance, as compared to Wiley’s figures, who exhibit everything from anger to bravado to intimidation. (With the exception of Obama, who exhibits a calm intensity. A subtitle could be stolen from August Rodin— “The Thinker.”)

Award-winning Sherald’s curriculum vitae is stellar. She has received residencies in Panama, Norway and Beijing, China. In 2012, Sherald, who suffered from cardiomyopathy, underwent a heart transplant. She signed a release form accepting the potential of danger from a high-risk patient. Later, she found out that her new heart belonged to a woman who had overdosed on opioids.

Michelle Obama Portrait with Michelle and Amy SheraldIn response to the question of whether the fame surrounding Michelle Obama’s portrait affected her life, Sherald said, “It did boost my confidence, only because I had been struggling for the longest time. You know you’re going to make it—everything was starting to fall into place—but it does kind of wear down on you when you’re in your 40s and you need to borrow money from somebody. You get these feelings of shame.” (Sarah Cascone, June 20, 2018, Artnet News.)

And That’s What it’s all About

 The Obamas’ portraits create a conflicting narrative. Where past presidents commissioned portraits by bona fide portrait artists, the Obamas chose museum-geared, contemporary artists. Where past presidents preferred exact likenesses in settings with familiar accoutrements, the Obamas sought broader statements.

Now that time has eased the eyebrow-raising aspect of the portraits, I am amused and pleased by the Obama’s choices of contemporary artists. But I am also saddened.

Because of the Obamas’ life experiences and race/color, as well as their philosophy, they chose to be “everyman” and “everywoman” in their portraits, particularly to the black community, and thus sublimated the fact that like the artists they chose, they had to work to achieve. In attempting to be a part of the multitude, they lost sight of their individualism (Michelle, in particular, because of the lack of resemblance). The president and first lady are figureheads, but they are also exceptional individuals.

Michelle Obama’s portrait has not been disassembled as much as, say, a Picasso. Mostly, it has been de-personified. I see only a pretty lady in a knock-out dress.

“They’re portraits whose subjects care about aesthetics, who are thoughtful about the history of portraiture, and who have the personal charisma to carry the weight of that history on themselves. … Which is important, because history is going to weigh heavily on the portraits of the first black president and first lady, painted by the first black artists commissioned to make the official presidential portraits.” (Constance Grady, Vox February 12, 2018.)

Wait! What about Simmie Knox? Ahh—because he is a professional portrait artist, he has no “narrative.” His blackness has already been forgotten. Talk about de-personifying.

By choosing Kehinde Wiley, who has embraced in-your-face imagery and utilized stinging satire, former President Barack Obama angered a vast swath of his country. As much as Barack Obama attempted to heal, he hurt.

Ironically, the idiom, “A picture paints a thousand words” couldn’t be more apt for two portraits that left many Americans speechless.

We all view life through our own filters. But when one is president, he needs to provide direction and connectivity. For many, the Obamas choices of portrait artists caused confusion and disconnection.

Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote (written originally by Poet John Lydgate) couldn’t be more apt here. “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.”

I would guess that future presidents will choose traditional portraits. In the meantime, these pieces remain peculiar, 21st century archetypes.

 

 

 

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Inspiration Just Outside the Window

There’s only one thing worse than getting lost in cyberspace when I’m supposed to be writing: looking out the window of my art studio when I’m supposed to be painting. Assembled in front of …

Source: Inspiration Just Outside the Window

Blurring the Lines

The exhibit, “Masterworks of American Impressionism,” just ended at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News. How exciting to view works by Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent among others. Photographs do not do justice.
Neither do teachers who still, in the year 2014, insist that art is prettified repetition limited to an old fashioned textbook definition. “What is art?” one of the docents asked a group of school children recently.
“It’s drawing inside the lines,” a wee one responded.
Ouch.
At least she brought her class to the gallery.
“Drawing inside the lines” was a perfect, nearly scripted setup for the docent’s explanation. There is far more to art than staying inside the lines. In fact, the Impressionists did not stay often inside the lines, either linear, literal or figurative. The point of their movement was to blur the edges of tradition and realism, to take the viewer on a visual journey of emotion and texture and light, to create familiar subjects in a somewhat realistic manner that disintegrates into dots and squiggles and smears when the viewer stands close, forcing one to cry, “How did she do that?”
Movement—the stroke of a brush or palette knife creates curves of paint that cup the light, blur the edges, launch motion. How to stay inside the lines when your intent is to create light? To emphasize a rounded form, transparent fabric, the glow of a sunlight through the curve of an ear? How to stay inside the lines, why to stay inside the lines when a wide, flat stroke of white on warm gray can create a 200 page book like the one being held by the reader in “Man Reading”? Yes, my favorite piece in the show. I just couldn’t stare at it enough. I wanted to devour it, as though the paint were whipped cream. That swift, sure touch of white to indicate the pages—pure genius.
If the students who toured the exhibit came away with a smidgen of that idea, they will have learned more about art than all of their elementary school education combined.

Redoing, repainting, rethinking

I knew when I painted the huge (30″ X 40″) acrylic of my daughter in a summery, sunglasses, tank top pose, getting into a car, that the proportions were wrong, but I was on deadline for a show entry. I just needed the image to be sharp, bold and attractive enough for a photo and email entry, and I could work out the kinks later.
I was overjoyed that the work was accepted.
Now, for the hard part.
I loved the mouth and the face. My favorite parts. But the head, overall, was too small. The rest of the body, such as  the arm, then the purse, as well as the car,  had been worked out proportionately, so my only choice was to paint over the face.
Sigh.
She ended up with a gaping black and red smile that looked like the Joker, aka Jack Nicholson. The perfect reflected light and shadows on her chin were painted over and enlarged. I am about a third of the way there.

Part of me is disheartened. Part of me is excited. I love to paint, and I love this painting. Trained as an illustrator, my background involves 00 (double-ot) Rapidographs, ruling pens, and T-squares. Large paintings involve a lot of large brushstrokes, then standing back several paces to obtain a true view.
It helps to loosen up with a glass of wine, too. And chocolate. No salesmen or corporate clients to worry about messy fingerprints on pristine illustration board.

So much of my life is like this now–redoing, using broader strokes, standing back to assess my progress. I can’t help but wax philosophical and consider that it is a good thing. I’ve got years of training under my belt. Teeny-tiny, detailed illustrations, drawn and re-drawn to clients’ specifications, published in the form of calendars and matchbooks. Cleaned typefonts, enlarged from aforementioned matchbooks, enlarged to 20 times their size, meticulously sculpted, then reduced and re-photographed. Pica measurements. Darkroom stats, printed too quickly, then cleaned up with White-Out on deadline.

I’ve earned this freedom, this joy.  And it shows. This painting, and others like it, have a sense of life to them that was lacking in my older, scripted work.
I hope that this sense of joy and freedom, built on accomplishment, spills over to other areas of my life–parenting, caregiving, organizing, cooking, volunteering. Whenever I feel my neck tighten up, or my temper flare, I remind myself to walk softly and carry a big paintbrush.
It feels good.