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  • Max Stearns

Reflections on the Obama Portraits

For the official portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, each employed, for the first time, African American artists. Kehinde Wiley painted the former President's portrait, and Amy Sherald painted the former First Lady's. See here. Each portrait is visually stunning, capturing the attention and imagination of the viewers in ways that more staid, or traditional, presidential and first lady portraiture has not. Based on my admittedly non-scientific evidence (news feeds and conversations), the general reaction has been sharply split. My general sense is that the reaction to Barack Obama's portrait roughly correlates to the views persons hold of the man and his presidency. Those who love him will find things to love in the portrait. His detractors will find things to hate. Ordinarily we would not consider portraiture the stuff of partisan politics or even ideology, but that is the world we are in. Yes, I have seen some negative reactions among Barack Obama fans, but fewer. The reactions to the Michelle Obama portrait are quite different. Both her fans and detractors have been critical, sometimes sharply so.

The comments I've read, and the reactions I've elicited among those I've asked, focus heavily on the dominant background, comprising plants, some flowering, but mostly greens, from Kenya, Indonesia, and Chicago. Many viewers see this imagery as overwhelming the portrait, rather than an essential element in its composition. Some express the concern that the background so overtakes the portrait of an accomplished President who is also the first person of color to attain that high office that it risks undermining the seriousness of later viewing. Some critics lament the plant symbolism, finding its prominence misplaced, or obscure, in light of Obama's unique place in history.

The criticisms of Michelle Obama's portrait are different. The First Lady is presented against pale blue background, seated in a flowing dress. Like the plants in her husband's portrait, some believe that the dress overtakes her portrait. The First Lady's image is bold, perhaps even stark, yet to the critics, the details give pause. Whereas the Barack Obama portrait exhibits considerable technical mastery, with photo-like realism depicting the man's facial and other physical attributes, the Michelle Obama portrait to some observers appears generic, lacking precision in her facial features, failing, perhaps, to capture a woman who has come to exemplify so many personas: loving wife, doting mother, passionate advocate, highly educated thought leader, a woman whose contributions were emboldened, not faded, by those of her husband.

Although I share some of these reservations about the Michelle Obama portrait, my impressions differ somewhat for the Barack Obama portrait. As with the portraits themselves, my perspective is affected by the background, here the thoughtful reflections of other observers. I am not expert in these matters. I am not artistic, and I have no training in art history. I also recognize the risk of seeing something unintended in these works of art, perhaps reflecting more on the viewer than the artist. Still, here is what I see.

The overwhelming background of the presidential portrait contrasts with what we might think of as its foreground. The contrast is sharp. Amid the greenery capturing from where his personal history derives-Kenya, Indonesia, Chicago-as represented by something alive, ongoing, bold, still flowering, sits the image of a deeply contemplative man. Even as he transitions from the Presidency toward life as a private citizen, he appears to be living in his mind, forever pensive. I imagine that he is not focused so much on whether he has helped make the world a better place as he is on whether his daughters, and future generations, will inherit in a stronger, or more troubled, world. I find it particularly notable that the portrait's center, despite the admirable technical detail, is not Obama's face. Rather, it is his juxtaposed hands. I can envision two very different ways to interpret this, and I am unsure if Wiley intended either. The first is evocative, perhaps provocative.

If you were looking to emphasize the size of Obama's hands, the best way to accomplish that is to set them wrist to wrist, pointing outward in opposite directions. Hands played a singular role in the 2016 election, and, to be specific, the size of the hands of the now-sitting President. We all remember the primary debates, when candidate Trump bluntly asserted that whatever implications might have been drawn from the claim that his hands were small, "I guarantee you, there's no problem," waiving both hands in the air. As candidate, and as President, Trump's insecurity seems limitless. This stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor, who always appeared comfortable in his own skin. (My favorite Obama image involves him bending over to allow a young African American boy who asked if the President's hair was like his own to touch the President's head.) In this viewing, Obama's hands pointedly jab at his successor, for whom everything is a contest, and who despite occupying the oval office has never managed to grow past the middle school sensibility that bigger, stronger, more powerful equates to better, whether cast in terms of votes received, inaugural crowd counts, or the size of buildings adorning the Manhattan landscape.

Perhaps Mr. Wiley intended another message. What sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is certainly our brains. Human capacity and accomplishment is virtually unbounded. And what has allowed our brains to develop to their greatest heights is undoubtedly our hands. Without the capacity to create, to draw, to hold, to carry, to care for, to transform thoughts into things, we would never have accomplished our most remarkable feats. Our brains and our hands co-evolved, each essential to the other and each inextricably linked to who we are. In this viewing, the focus on Obama's hands emphasizes Obama's mind. The facial expression, pensive, piercing, thoughtful, is merely a clue into a man who Wiley depicts as sensitive, empathic, and kind, and also highly evolved and cerebral.

These portraits stand out, as do the choice of artists. As I think of the image of the boy touching the Barack Obama's head, I also imagine another child decades, maybe even centuries, hence, wandering with her parents through the National Portrait Gallery. That child might look back at images of presidents past, persons of color, women, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims, each of whom holds a unique story about how she or he came to occupy our nation's highest office, the most powerful office in the world. Along that walk appears the images of a man and a woman, unlike any that went before, and perhaps any that came since. That child might ask her parents why this is so. Perhaps Wiley, and Sherald, were also imagining that child and the conversation that followed.

I welcome your comments.

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