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Presidential portraits celebrate the office; they don’t ask him


Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama will have their official portraits unveiled at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a small but significant gesture of civility and continuity in these trying times, but also a profound reminder that our confidence in decorum turns out to be a weak defender of democracy.

In recent years, we have learned that so many of the rules and rubrics that we assumed were written into the Constitution or at least affirmed by law – sometimes, somewhere – were little more than common practice, niceties. There are a host of traditions this country could do without – the singing of the national anthem before sporting events, inherited admissions to elite universities, the mythologizing of bootstrapped achievement. They turn patriotism into a competitive endeavor and treat financial success as something equally accessible to anyone with just a little determination. But other traditions were invaluable in moving the country forward, leadership shifting from Democrats to Republicans, Conservatives to Liberals, without gunshots or bloodshed, until suddenly it wasn’t the case. In January 2021, our traditions failed us. The country has been invaded by malice and lies.

But this shipwreck was long overdue. Our unshakeable belief in the power and sanctity of our rituals has left us blind to reality. We had painted ourselves a flattering picture on a scarred and torn canvas.

When President Biden welcomes the Obamas to the White House, we will witness an afternoon of high regard between two men whose enduring relationship is both personal and professional. But the event will be an opportunity to take stock of the very idea of ​​presidential portraits – those artful renderings that reflect us as much as they do, so far, of any man.

They have a history of bland grandeur and stately swagger. They were not examinations of imperfect men but of human men or interrogations of an individual character. They were odes to the institution and markers of time.

Obama’s return in pink

These portraits have long carried the burden of our collective struggle against civic self-reflection. We don’t like to see any flaws, other than a bit of pudge, and no failures. The mainstream writers of this country’s history have seen heroism at every turn and overlooked the cost of this hyperbole.

An examination of presidential portraits reveals a gallery of gray-haired white men seated or standing in a reserved manner, in the pose of people comfortable with grandeur. Aside from their attire, they are not depicted in a way that offers much context for the era during which they ruled. Even though many portrait painters benefited from the passage of time in which they could consider their subjects and actions accordingly, these men are seen not through the unemotional trained eye of history but rather the admiring eye of the ‘hagiography. In these renditions of the Commanders-in-Chief, they all become awesome. Or at least dignified, even if they held other humans in bondage or aimed to re-segregate a country that was just beginning to swing towards justice or helped to entrench the thoughtless term “welfare queen” in the psyche of the nation.

Most of these men face the viewer directly so that their eyes communicate confidence and rigor. If they are represented in profile, it is with their gaze turned towards an invisible horizon. Perhaps they are holding a sheath of papers or have their hand lightly resting on a chair or desk. The Capitol dome can appear in the distance. It is only in recent years that the American flag has been prominent. Bill Clinton is flanked by a. George W. Bush wears a small pin on his lapel. Some men smile, but their joy seems determined rather than easy. The presidency, after all, is a heavy burden. But the men are not gray. Many of the paintings allude to religiosity and manifest destiny.

If there is one portrait in the historical collection that has always stood out, it is that of John F. Kennedy. It is more impressionistic in its rendering, and it depicts Kennedy with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her head tilted downward in thought. He refrains from bravado and leans into the weight, loneliness and uncertainty of the office. It’s a humble image, which doesn’t mean that Kennedy was a humble man. Those who seek the presidency are usually blessed with an overabundance of self-esteem. But it most clearly reflects the conflicting demands of the office and the complexity of this country.

The portrait of Obama will be added to this line. These White House images serve a different purpose than those commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery. Kehinde Wiley’s life-size painting of Obama, part of the museum’s permanent collection, tells the man’s story. In his vivid and colorful rendition of him against bold green flora reminiscent of his birthplace of Hawaii, as well as his family roots in Kenya and his adopted home of Chicago, he sits forward, tieless, exuding easy charisma and a focused spirit. It highlights the staff. He talks, in almost granular detail, about who he is and what it represents.

The Obamas’ Portraits Aren’t What You’d Expect, And That’s Why They’re Awesome

The official portraits hanging in the White House have always been a continuation of a seamless story. Obama interrupted the monochromatic narrative with his Darkness, but we quickly smoothed over the difficult times in the country’s history by declaring that the mere fact of his election amounted to the end of our racial division rather than an uprooting of rage. dormant.

Our traditions – beautiful, funky, photogenic – have a way of obscuring who we are. They allowed us to camouflage our weaknesses. They allow us to believe things that are not true, to erect certainty on fragile and tenuous notions.

In the unveiling of Obama’s portrait, we aspire to continuity. And surely we want to celebrate the man and its administration. But to ensure the sustainability of democracy, we also need a representation of the American presidency that is more of a value judgment, that not only shows its greatness but also its vicissitudes and its follies. And that its relationship to democracy is a matter of faith as much as of law.


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