Portraying Politicos: The Real Art Of The Possible

​This weekend The Federalist published my brief survey of some of the work created thus far by the Contemporary Art world both for and against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are just the latest public figures to come under artistic scrutiny. In art history, political personages have frequently served as sources for both artistic inspiration and artistic patronage. Sometimes the results can be magnificent works of art, but at other times, the attempt to glorify a political leader can turn out to be rather ridiculous.

Portraiture is an easy way for artists to highlight the power and influence of a political figure. For example, in Diego Velázquez’ magnificent “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650) at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, the painter portrayed the politically powerful pontiff in such an insightful way, that it is still recognized as one of the finest portraits ever created in the history of art. The challenge of painting such a physically unattractive figure was no small task; even the Pope himself was said to remark that the intense, sharp gaze and the blotchy skin was “all too true”. Nevertheless the artist managed to successfully straddle the delicate line between idealism and realism in capturing the intensity of his subject, and giving the impression that here was a very serious leader, whom you did not want to tangle with.

Sculptor Penelope Jencks’ pleasing “Eleanor Roosevelt” (1996), located on Riverside Drive in New York City, was, ironically enough, unveiled by Mrs. Clinton herself back when she was First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt was a physically unattractive woman, and to many on the Right she remains a political anathema. However in this sculpture, Jencks managed to create an interesting, powerful portrait of an important political figure, without over-idealizing her subject. It is a thoughtful, reflective piece, with its “listening” pose and casual stance, as Mrs. Roosevelt is shown resting against a stone with her ankles crossed. It manages to flatter the memory and influence of Mrs. Roosevelt, without pretending that she was some sort of goddess.

On the other side of the coin, we find Agnolo Bronzino’s strange, Mannerist portrait of about 1537-39, “Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici As Orpheus”, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The young Grand Duke of Tuscany is portrayed (rather surprisingly) in the nude, and given the attributes of Orpheus from Greek mythology. He is shown playing music intended to soothe the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, who is lurking in the background. One theory in trying to understand this image is that it was intended as a political allegory, symbolizing how the newly-restored Medici dynasty would bring back quiet and calm to Tuscany, with the abolition of the Florentine Republic. Yet if such was the intent behind this painting, by turning the scion of a political family into a god, one cannot help but chuckle at the result.

Similarly, if you have visited the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., you may have seen the monumental sculpture by Horatio Grennough titled “Enthroned Washington” (1840). To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of 1st U.S. President, Congress commissioned a statue from Grennough designed to evoke the heroic, long-vanished seated statue of Zeus from Mount Olympus by the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. The completed statue of Washington was originally placed in the grandeur of the Capitol Rotunda, but it drew so much controversy and laughter as a result of its semi-nude appearance, that Congress moved it to the East Lawn of the Capitol. It was later given to the Smithsonian, and has resided in the more modest surroundings of the National Museum of American History since the 1960’s.

Art meant to praise a political figure is one thing; art meant to criticize one is another. If today’s political candidates see themselves as being unfairly and crudely skewered by the art world, they should realize that they are in fact in good historic company. The English Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War, among others, all featured a wide distribution of popularly available prints and illustrations, which in many cases led to the general acceptance of politically-motivated lies as truth. Often these works were crude, pornographic, racist, or just plain trash.

Anyone with common sense can look at such pieces, and dismiss them as nothing more than poorly-executed works of art. However if you do not believe that art critical of the establishment can lead to real political consequences, search for some of the lascivious engravings of false allegations that were widely circulated regarding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the fall of the French Monarchy. Many of the lies propagated by these works ended up being alleged as facts against the King and Queen at their respective trials, and subsequent executions.

During the Eighty Years’ War, art created with the intent of crudely insulting one’s political opponents was very popular on both sides of the conflict. This was the long slog between Catholic and Protestant powers for control over what is today Belgium and The Netherlands. Because of the length of the conflict, the wealth of the combatants, and the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of one of the greatest artistic flowerings in European history, many highly individual, and rather insulting, works of art were created during this battle of wills.

One interesting example of this is “Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow”, a painting by an unknown 16th century Netherlandish artist which is currently in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. In it, we see King Philip II of Spain riding a cow, which is meant to symbolize his power over The Netherlands. Unfortunately for Philip, he cannot move his mount forward despite his spurring, because the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange has the proverbial bull – er, cow – by the horns, and the cow herself is being fed by the equally Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At around the time this work was painted, Elizabeth had entered into trade agreements with the Dutch, which allowed the rebels greater means by which to hold out against the Spanish. Meanwhile Frederick, Duke of Anjou, to whom the rebellious Dutch had offered sovereignty when they rejected Philip, and who then proceeded to get himself thrown out of Holland after a disastrous uprising against him at Antwerp, is shown in the picture as well, being defecated on by the cow. A final individual in the painting is wearing Spanish court dress as he milks the cow from underneath, but the artist shows that this fellow is about to get kicked or trod upon by the cow.

While this painting was created to insult Spanish politics, another work of art dating from roughly the same time and place seeks to do the exact opposite. In about 1570, another unknown Netherlandish artist created a highly political sculpture titled “The Grand Duke of Alba Defeats The Enemies of Philip II”, which is still held in the Ducal collections of the House of Alba. It features the 3rd Grand Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, attacking a monstrous, three-headed hydra. What makes it particularly interesting and political however, is that the three heads of the hydra are caricatures of three of Philip’s greatest political enemies: Pope Paul IV, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Augustus, Elector of Saxony.

All three of the leaders who make up the monster which the Duke of Alba is trying to slay caused significant political headaches for Philip, and all three had to tangle with the Duke of Alba on more than one occasion. Thus, while the sculpture certainly flatters the Grand Duke and, by extension, Philip himself, its more important, political purpose is to insult other European leaders who were opposed to Spanish political ambitions. In reality, only Pope Paul managed to find himself bested by Alba, but then even popes were rarely Catholic enough for Spanish standards. As a result, this piece of political propaganda is, to some extent, an example of wishful thinking.

Whether created to support, flatter, or disparage a particular figure, these portrayals of powerful politicians continue to fascinate, as well as to inform both our understanding of these individuals, and the times in which they held sway over government and society.

Painting, Paris, and Politics: The Louvre Gets Set To Move

Given that it is Bastille Day, and I have long ago said all that needs to be said about this most dreadful of un-holydays, the reader may be interested in reading about a less bloody battle going on in France at the moment. The Louvre announced this week that it will be moving a quarter of a million of its works currently held in storage in Paris, out to a former mining town in the north of France.  The building of a new storage facility and the subsequent move will take place despite significant domestic and international criticism of the project. While it is easy to look at this plan and detect a strong whiff of that most pungent of odors, politics, the venture does give us the chance to consider what role politics can play for good in the art world.

It may surprise you to learn that the collections of many museums, but particularly ones of significant scope such as The Louvre, are never fully on display to the public. When you go to The National Gallery here in Washington for example, you are seeing only a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of pieces a major museum possesses.  Because it would be impossible to display all of its holdings, the National Gallery has both an art storage facility and a separate warehouse where these works are housed in suburban Maryland, about ten miles from downtown Washington.

By comparison the former mining town of Liévin, where The Louvre will begin storing its art, is located 125 miles from central Paris. According to The Art Newspaper, Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has admitted that he will have to come up with ways not only to shuttle Louvre employees to and from the facility, but to actually house them there, since the town is located a 4-5 hour train ride away from Paris. Understandably, 42 of the 45 curators of The Louvre have signed a protest letter against going ahead with this move.

Timing is also of the essence for M. Martinez since French Senator Daniel Percheron, who has been a driving force behind this project, is leaving office next year.  Senator Percheron is both a leading member of France’s ruling socialist party, and – quelle surprise – the representative of the region where the Louvre store will be constructed. No doubt the effort to establish his political legacy played a significant part in pulling off this coup for his constituents. For of course not only will several years’ worth of construction jobs result from this project but, once established, the huge facility will need guards, cleaners, administrative staff, etc., while those who go to work and study there will need nearby hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, and so on.

Moreover the location for this storage site, strange as it may seem to send these works of art so far away from home, is no accident. The Louvre store will be a few miles from the “mini Louvre” in the nearby town of Lens, a museum which you may never have heard of.  It was built in 2012 to display works from the overstuffed Parisian vaults of The Louvre, in part to try to draw tourism to this rusty, depressed part of France. If you are looking for Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People”, or Raphael’s magnificent portrait of Castiglione – which in fact serves as the thematic inspiration for this blog – they are no longer in Paris, but rather in the Louvre-Lens. Sadly, this ensures that I will probably never get to see the portrait in person, but be that as it may.

The question to be asked however, is not whether it is wrong to send all of this art out of Paris.  The real question is whether there was a workable alternative that could have been accomplished politically. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the safety and conservation of so many works of art traveling from one place to another, given the inherent fragility of many of the works moving north. Those concerns need to be addressed thoroughly, and one would expect that The Louvre will bear them in mind.

However, if no location within Paris or its environs was able to mount the funding, logistics, and yes, political will necessary to bring about the creation of this project, what, then, would be the acceptable alternative? Allow these works of art to sit below flood stage in the basements of the Louvre, awaiting the next inundation of the Seine? Appropriate or build a massive facility in or near the capital, where the associated costs for such a project would be astronomically higher, for a country still reeling from economic downturn?

Doing nothing and risking the destruction of the art at issue would seem a pyrrhic victory, at best, and gross negligence, at worst, both for the artistic and historical patrimony of France and indeed of all mankind. Much as one finds the end result somewhat distasteful, one must also be honest in acknowledging that the politics at play here will lead, if not to the best result, at least to a solution with positive externalities. The art will be preserved, a poor area of France will benefit, and perhaps works which have never been thoroughly studied or understood for centuries, may finally see the light of day, as they emerge from the cellars in which they presently reside.  Politics may not always provide the answer to all our problems, but without its influence, efforts to preserve artistic collections of major significance such as this one, would almost certainly fall entirely by the wayside.

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