The secret symbols politicians use

di Kelly Grovier, BBC,
15 Aprile 2016

The art works behind world leaders
often contain powerful symbolic messages that are easy to decode,
Kelly Grovier explains.

In front of the unveiling of two Rembrandt portraits, Francois Hollande was transformed into a champion of public culture

Forget what world leaders say. 
If you
want to understand what they are really up to, look at the paintings
that hang behind them at press conferences and summit meetings, or
when they pause with apparent spontaneity along a corridor to answer
a reporter’s question. The silent stare of a poised portrait gazing
at you over the shoulder of David Cameron or Vladimir Putin is often
more loaded and more deliberately orchestrated than you might think.
Often these subtle messages are easy enough to decode.
Consider, for example, a photo-op
earlier this year involving French President Francois Hollande in the
Louvre Museum in Paris. Against the unveiling of two full-body
portraits by the Dutch master Rembrandt that had been in private
ownership for 130 years (the Louvre acquired the paintings jointly
with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), Hollande was transformed into a
champion of public culture over the hoarding of art by the rich.

Angela Merkel was pictured with Nelly Toll in front of Girls in the
Field, which Toll had painted aged 8 in a Jewish ghetto in Poland
(Credit: Rex Features)

Nor was it difficult to understand why
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was compelled in January 2016 to be
photographed in front of Girls in the Field, a small painting of two
girls in bright flowery dresses. 

The work, created in 1943 by
8-year-old Nelly Toll in a Jewish ghetto in Poland, was on display as
part of the
largest exhibition of Holocaust art outside Israel

At a moment of accelerating
anti-Semitism in Europe, the image of Merkel standing before a
Holocaust survivor’s childhood vision of a peaceful world proved
more eloquent than any speech the leader could hope to deliver. 

side-by-side laughing and shaking hands, Merkel and the now
80-year-old Toll (the only artist in the show who is still alive),
the pair mirrored the joyfulness of the innocent figures in the image
behind them.

New best friends?

Though every world leader is doubtless
conscious of the signals that visual props around them subconsciously
convey, the handlers responsible for shaping the image of the US
president have taken things to another level. 

Take President Obama’s
recent trip to Cuba – the first such visit by a US president in 88
years.  Obama’s short trek 90 miles (145km) from the US to its
Caribbean neighbour in March 2016 was his boldest step yet in
advancing his controversial agenda to reset diplomatic relations
between the two nations. 

But it was a painting by a Cuban artist that
stole the show.

Among the more awkward events on
Obama’s Cuban itinerary was a meeting with a group of political
dissidents, many of whom fear the thawing of relations between
Washington and Havana will only embolden the repressive tendencies of
Cuban president Raúl Castro by legitimising his regime. Enter Michel
Mirabal, a contemporary Cuban artist whose sprawling painting My New
Friend provided the striking backdrop to the meeting.

Michel Mirabal’s My
New Friend provided the striking backdrop for Obama’s meeting with a
group of political dissidents in Cuba (Credit: Reuters)

The work, which features side-by-side
representations of the Cuban and US flags constructed loosely of red,
white, and blue handprints pressed haphazardly against a neutral grey
field, stretched evocatively behind Obama as he sat at a long table
to discuss the concerns of the the Cuban government’s detractors.
As a subliminal symbol capable of capturing, on the one hand, the
plight of those oppressed by the Cuban government, and, on the other
hand, Obama’s commitment to ending sanctions against Cuba, the
painting could hardly have been more cleverly chosen. 

The hasty
blizzard of anonymous handprints has the feel of street art or
something illicitly constructed: a compression of innocence that
recalls the clay moulds made by children in kindergarten. 

At the same
time, the two flags appear to be visual anagrams of each other, each
consisting of the same handprints merely arranged in different
combinations, as if subtly to imply that the two countries are
essentially inseparable.

‘Speak softly and carry a
big stick’

Obama has become a skilled
Curator-in-Chief when it comes to choreographing his events. 

On 25
February 2016, the US president reasserted his intention (a key
campaign pledge when he first ran for office in 2008) to close the
detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a facility many regard as
emblematic of America’s controversial treatment of terror suspects. Early efforts by Obama to shut the centre met with resistance from
those who argue that the move would send a signal to Islamists that
America’s will to defeat jihadist terror was diminishing.

It was deemed too
risky for George W Bush to be pictured in front of Picasso’s Guernica
when pressing for war against Iraq (Credit: Guernica, 1937, Pablo

Against the background of such
allegations of weakness, Obama’s decision to hold a press
conference announcing his determination to close Guantanamo once and
for all in the shadow of a swashbuckling portrait of Obama’s
forebear, Theodore Roosevelt, was hardly accidental. 
After all, Teddy
Roosevelt, who in 1898 led a legendary cavalry of so-called “Rough
Riders” to victory against Spanish overlords in Cuba, helped
establish US control over Guantanamo Bay in the first place. 

placing himself visually alongside a heroic portrait of the galloping
leader, who is credited with the credo “speak softly and carry a
big stick”, Obama hoped to bask in the reflected testosterone of
America’s most macho president.

Obama’s team is not, of course,
unique among recent US administrations in recognising the power of
art to advance their agendas. 

Long before he began, in retirement,
wielding a brush to capture (or torture) the likenesses of the
foreign leaders with whom he dealt as president, George Bush
countenanced an alarming manipulation of aesthetics in order to
control public opinion.

In early February, 2003, when the
United States was pressing the case for war against Iraq in the
United Nations, officials installed a blue curtain across a tapestry
that hangs near the entrance-way of the Security Council, in the very
spot where US State Department Officials are filmed by television

What work was deemed to be so dangerous that it could not be
transmitted into the living rooms of viewers while Bush officials
lobbied to unleash a campaign of shock and awe against Saddam

The answer is a large tapestry version
of Pablo Picasso’s anti-fascist masterpiece Guernica – an 11ft
(3.4m) wide painting that shudders with the horrors of the aerial
bombardment in 1937 of an ancient Basque town. 
The original
oil-on-canvas work (which now resides in Madrid’s Reina Sofia
Museum) was on display in New York throughout the violent protests
against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and was
regarded by many as a painting whose spirit was at odds with the
aggressiveness of US foreign policy. 

Thirty years later, Guernica’s
suspended chaos of howling horse heads and ravaged limbs was regarded
by administration officials as too risky a backdrop against which to
be photographed lobbying for war.

The intense relationship between
presidential politics and visual art is due to be given a fresh spin
by whomever prevails in the rambunctious election that is now
gripping the US. If Hillary Clinton wins back the White House for her
family, will her first foray into the politics of the eye be the
swift removal from public display of the official portrait of her
husband that now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute’s National
Portrait Gallery?

In 2015, 10 years after the artist
Nelson Shanks unveiled the likeness of Bill Clinton, Shanks confessed
to having inserted into the work a
covert reference to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky
. And
what if Donald Trump triumphs in November? 

His plan to build a wall
1000 miles (1600km) long between the US and Mexico is a graffiti
artist’s dream. If constructed, it would surely result in the
largest blank canvas in the history of Western art.