Issue 93 September 2005 RSS

The State of Heads


A new book of photographs of world leaders begs the question: what is the point of political portraiture?

It is always an awkward moment when a head of state decides to show his or her face. The result is often an amalgam of who he thinks he is, what others think he is, what he really is and what he tries to be. The editors of Official Portraits (2004, published by Trolley) asked each of the 191 members of the United Nations to send them a photograph of their leader in order to show ‘the diversity in official photography of world leaders’. But the question the book ultimately asks is, ‘what is the point of political portraiture today?’

At first glance it is the similarities that are most apparent: the subjects are overwhelmingly male, with over three-quarters of them wearing Western-style business suits. Prince Hans Adam II of the Principality of Liechtenstein luxuriates in an immaculate sports jacket, his legs comfortably crossed, a copy of the Financial Times open in his hands. Could any image better represent the poise and equanimity of this tiny tax haven? President Urusemal of Micronesia, on the other hand, looks distinctly uncomfortable in his ill-fitting suit. Slouched forward in his seat, his watery eyes seem to hearken after the Hawaiian shirt sported by his Pacific neighbour President Scotty of Nauru.

For the most part these leaders sit or stand in generic offices, in the backgrounds of which the faintest of symbols creep into view. Whether it’s a flag or a bookcase, the viewer is left only with the suggestion that the picture’s subject is patriotic and literate, nothing more. There are occasional deviations, but these usually backfire: the Principality of Monaco that stretches out behind the late Prince Rainier of Monaco completely overpowers him, so that he appears a tourist in his own country, while Panama’s President Espino has been eerily superimposed onto a blue sky, making him look as is if he is being beamed down from outer space.

What is apparent in Official Portraits is a dichotomy between the inspirational and the informational, between authority and accessibility. Torn between depicting their subjects as both strident leaders and yet also men and women of the people, these pictures have rid themselves of the traditional signifiers of sovereign power. Military uniforms are only worn by a handful of old school despots, while signifiers of wealth and power barely register (an exception is President Sassou N’Guesso of the Republic of Congo, who has been impolitely thrust to one side of his picture so that a large golden statue of an angel can take centre stage). Without them these portraits are stranded in no man’s land, their unifying sentiment one of comic blandness.

Traditionally political portraiture was indissoluble from propaganda. Take Hans Holbein’s (now destroyed) mural of Henry VIII in London’s Whitehall Palace, in which the king stood over two metres tall and the viewers’ eyes, level with Henry’s hips, would have been drawn not only to his imposing codpiece but also to the clenched right fist and the dagger clutched in his left. This was a man ready for a fight. Socialist Realism saw the link between propaganda and portraiture at its strongest. Karp Trokhimenko’s Stalin as an Organizer of the October Revolution (c.1949) is not only an exaggeration of the leader (as is Holbein’s mural) but a complete fabrication. Indeed so false are the images of Socialist Realism that as soon as the political power of the subject matter wanes, the portraits seem to revolt against them. Without political authority or, for the most part, aesthetic skill to fall back on, official portraits of Lenin, Stalin or Mao swiftly lose their original purpose and become commodities. The famous portrait of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda and appropriated by Fidel Castro into his own cult of personality is a prime example of propaganda stripped of political meaning.

What is most surprising about Official Portraits, however, is how many of the photographs appear to have been taken not as propaganda or product but as an afterthought. There are some that are blatantly out of focus, or in which the subject appears quite surprised to be having his picture taken. The one exception to the general insipidness that pervades Official Portraits is Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, whose photograph harks back to the traditional inspirational and fearful necessities of official portraiture. Taken from below, the viewer looks up at the Colonel from knee-height. An imperious sneer curls under his blue-tinted, gold rimmed sunglasses, while his eyes are lizard-black, both cold and powerful.

Yet despite the best efforts of a few traditional tyrants, the school of official portraiture seems to be little more than a vestige of the days before democracy and, more pertinently, democracy’s handmaiden – television. For it is television that provides a leader with the visibility and, more importantly, the sense of omniscience that political portraits originally intended to convey. Gone are the coded messages, the subtle threats, the rampant egomania. Political leaders today seem to prefer the frequent image to the strident one. What is the point of political portraiture today? As Official Portraits deftly shows, there is none.

George Pendle

George Pendle’s book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons was published in February 2005 by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson.

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Issue 93, September 2005

by George Pendle

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