President Obama’s portrait was the work of Kehinde Wiley, a New York City based painter who receivedthe Artist of the Year Award from the New York City Art Teachers seven years ago.
Mrs Obama’s portrait was the work of Amy Sherald who will have her first major solo show at the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis, this May.
Wiley and Sherald thus become the first two African American artists responsible for official Presidential Portraits.
Richard Powell, a professor of art and art history, said in an interview that he would consider Sherald still an “up and coming” artist, whereas Wiley is someone whom “I would certainly call a veteran.” Bringing them together in this way was, he said, “inspired.”
Both portraits are stylistically striking. Mr. Obama is portrayed wearing a jacket (though no tie) sitting on a plain wooden chair in front of a wall of greenery and flowers that threatens to overwhelm him. Mrs. Obama is shown against a pale blue backdrop, chin rested on her right hand. She is wearing a long flowing dress adorned by geometric design.
The New York Times’ art critic, Holland Cotter, wrote that the former painting “depicts Mr. Obama … as an alert and troubled thinker.” He was less happy with the portrait of Mrs. Obama, which he said “overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle.”
Right Wing View
Rush Limbaugh, a pioneer of conservative talk radio, was on air discussing the unveiling ceremony soon thereafter. His chief point was that the ceremony itself displayed what he saw as the arrogance of the former First Couple. “Barack was sitting there with his head in the air like he always did, just above everything, while Michelle was going on and on and on about this artist she found.”
After some time on that theme, Limbaugh drifted into aesthetic judgment. His own judgments seem eccentric. He seems to want to tell us that he is a just-the-facts guy, who would prefer mugshots to painted portraits. “Just like I’m not into poetry….Shakespeare never really appealed. Shakespeare is philosophy in prose and I’d rather go read the translation of it.” For the record, Shakespeare’s works (in verse, not prose) do have philosophical implications, but to call them “philosophy” rather than comedies, tragedies, etc. is way off. Indeed, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech is a satire on philosophy.
Many conservatives on social media expressed a compound of three points: the paintings are terrible; the obsequious liberals are pretending they are good; behold mystique.
Meanwhile, at Fox News, the headline for their website’s story on the unveiling kept morphing. They started with “Michelle Obama portrait faces social media mockery after unveiling.” That changed to, “Michelle Obama portrait faces brutal mockery after unveiling.” Someone at Fox may have thought the slant was a bit too much, because this in turn morphed to Michelle Obama portrait faces brutal mockery, some praise after unveiling.”
Left Wing View
At the aforesaid unveiling, Michelle Obama described these portraits as, so to speak, an act of desegregation, where the Smithsonian represents the front of a bus. She said she was “thinking of all the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who … will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution.”
Constance Grady, at Vox, began her discussion with a little art history. She writes that portraiture “got thrown into the wastebasket of the middlebrow after the abstract expressionists came calling in the middle of the 20th century.” But portraiture has been slowly resurfacing, she says, and these portraits in particular show the benign results of that development.
Wiley in particular Grady praises for “redistributing the aesthetic power of art.”
On Instagram, the former President posted a photo of the unveiling ceremony, and said that he hoped the works would encourage visitors to the museum to “walk out more empowered to go and change their worlds.”
The Boston Globe headlined that these were “two iconic portraits for the iconic Obama presidency.” Thus, it proves that the adjectival form of the word “icon” has become the clogged artery of contemporary prose.