Look, I almost feel sorry for the Obamas – almost. To be memorialized for posterity by these paintings in the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery –
is almost too karmic. They are underwhelming to say the least.
The former Prez and First Lady got to choose who painted their portraits – Kehinde Wiley painted Barack, and Michelle was painted by Amy Sherald, with whom the former First Lady said she felt ‘a sister-girl’ connection immediately at their first interview. Both artists are noted for the social justice themes in their artwork. This is what happens when identity politics outranks merit, and in a way it is an utterly appropriate outcome for these two.
The President’s is a good likeness, and the rest of the painting is typical of this artist’s wallpaper-like backgrounds. Not my favorite style of painting by a long shot, but it seems well-executed, though oddly posed. Michelle does not fair as well – I don’t think it looks like her, and many are commenting the same online. The artist typically uses gray tones to paint people of color for some reason – you’d probably have to read her CV to find out why – and indeed uses washed-out colors for the whole painting, giving it a look my college painting professor would have called ‘necrotic.’
I think they really did keep the paintings hidden until their unveiling. And I do give Michelle credit for having the grace not to use any actual words that connoted the shock, disappointment and confusion apparent in her tone as she grasped for something to say after the unveiling.
If you can wait past the brief ad before the video in the link below, it’s worth watching Mrs. Obama for once being almost speechless.
One of my favorite scenes from the tv show The Office was when Pam’s old boyfriend Roy struggles to compliment her paintings in a group art exhibit. He stammers sincerely, “Your art – is the best art – of all the art.”
I was tempted to do a solid rant about some bad art I’d encountered recently, until I remembered I’d seen some undeniably good art this past week as well. So we’ll end this post on a high note.
BUT FIRST THE BAD ART. Have you ever heard of Basquiat? He was a NYC graffiti maker in the 1970s and 80s whose alleged artwork excoriated the privileged classes while simultaneously draining large sums of cash from the pockets of the art collectors among them. He was discovered and assigned fame by Andy Warhol, feted by elite art critics and even was Madonna’s boyfriend for a time; but a heroin overdose caused his death at age 27. Below is one of his ‘paintings,’ which sold for over $5 million at auction in 2002.
Basquiat was also a proto-BLM advocate, who found it ironic that any black man could be a policeman since cops only enforce the laws that ‘enslave black people.’ But some in today’s haut monde were not satisfied that this blot on art history should stay in tony places, suckering only rich people who want to sully large swaths of white wallspace in their NYC lofts. No, they had to publish a book last year – a children’s picture book – glorifying him, titled Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I’ve never seen an anti-children’s book before, but that sums up Radiant Child for me: unattractive artwork, dull writing, bad message. The author-illustrator, Javaka Steptoe, couldn’t use direct copies of Basquiat’s work in his illustrations, much of which would be too disturbing for children, so he sought the feeling of it by using a very primitive art style, which excels in no standards of composition, color harmony or gesture I’ve come across.
I once read, to judge artistic skill say to yourself: can I picture how this piece would look if it were executed poorly?
Steptoe painted the art on found boards, which is why there are awkward, confusing concurrences of lines in the images. The text is clunky, the colors are straight out of the tube, the composition is cluttered, there are conflicting focal points. Not unlike Basquiat’s own work, I admit, but is this what we should accept as publication-worthy?
To top things off, for this notably unappealing work Steptoe was awarded the premier prize for children’s illustration in 2017 – the Caldecott Medal, given to ‘the most distinguished American picture book of the year for children.’
So the progressives have evidently commandeered the American Library Association, who in the past have given awards like the Caldecott to excellent artists like David Weisner, E.B. Lewis and Beth Krommes. The art in Radiant Child isn’t worthy of this recognition, and neither is the uninspiring writing – the story openly highlights Basquiat’s desire to become ‘a famous artist’ simply for celebrity’s sake, a terrible value to hold up for children.
ON TO SOME GOOD ART. Have you heard of Lilias Trotter? I had not, until a friend loaned me a book about her work and an exquisitely done documentary of her life, Many Beautiful Things.
Trotter grew up in an upper-class family in late 19th c. England, was quite religious, and a self-taught artist. While still young she met John Ruskin, the foremost arbiter of the arts in the Victorian era, who deemed her talent prodigious and became her teacher and life-long friend.
Trotter loved and dwelt on nature so she could paint it in all its lyrical, elegant detail. She drew and painted in dozens of sketchbooks and often entwined Biblical quotes with the images. She saw God’s handiwork in every tendril of nature.
Ruskin mentored her in art for a time but she felt drawn more and more to help the poor in London, and she joined an organization that ministered to homeless women and prostitutes. Several years later she became a missionary in Algiers, and spent most of the last forty years of her life teaching Christianity and helping desperately poor and outcast women and children of Algeria. She filled more sketchbooks with the scenes and people that surrounded her.
Hers are among the best sketches I have ever seen – simple strokes; fresh, unlabored color; the uniqueness of each human pose and gesture, captured with unhurried purity, as if in one glance.
Ruskin had told her she could be among the great painters of her time if she stayed in Europe and continued her study. Lilias Trotter could have been – a celebrity. Instead she devoted much of her life to helping people, and kept her sketch diaries to record the beauty she saw.
In my research about Lilias I find there was a children’s book published about her in 2015 – Lily, the Girl who Could See. I have not read it yet but I have ordered it. I’d like to show my grandchildren a story about a really good artist.