It's said that when Norman Rockwell painted Richard Nixon's presidential portrait in 1968, he found Nixon's appearance so shifty, he decided that no portrayal of the president could do his cagey mug justice. In the end, Rockwell painted a generous portrait, figuring that it's better to be mistaken and flattering than just plain wrong.
The benefit of the doubt worked for Nixon -- he hadn't yet served his second presidential term, so ambiguity was perhaps appropriate. If a leader's record proves poor, however, there are ways for an artist to convey his disapproval of his subject. But rarely will an artist take a portrait as an opportunity to show someone literally getting screwed.
That's what portrait artist Jonathan Yeo has done for George W. Bush. Unveiled in August at the Lazarides Gallery in London, Yeo's unofficial presidential portrait is a photomontage of images snipped from pornographic magazines. It's not a painting, but it's definitely a portrait: at a distance, Bush's close-set, beady eyes and pursed frown are plainly visible. Up close, however, the image devolves into a collage of naked flesh, bodily emissions, and human orifices. An act of fellatio comprises most of Bush's right ear; where his left dimple should be is an image of a woman's face, locked in a moan of ecstasy. A detail of Bush's cheek finds Yeo depicting pores through explicit metaphor.
Yet the most shocking aspect of the work may be that it got its start through an official request Yeo received to do a portrait of Bush. Yeo, known for his oil portraiture, was commissioned by the George W. Bush Presidential Library to paint an official portrait of the 43rd president. But before he began work on the painting, Yeo was told that his services would not be required. Yeo decided to change directions and finish the piece anyway.
Typically, Yeo has not worn his politics on his sleeve. An accomplished political portrait artist from the UK, he is perhaps best known for a triptych of portraits featuring the candidates for 2001 prime minister race. In that series, Yeo extends the same pictorial courtesy to Conservative Party candidate William Hague and Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy that he reserves for the victor, Labor's Tony Blair. If anything, Hague and Kennedy come off as more grounded in their portraits, whereas Blair seems softer and less substantive.
Official political portraits have not been, historically speaking, the medium artists choose to make broad editorial claims about an administration -- with some exceptions. For his legacy, Bush might have hoped for an artist like Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, the artist who did Andrew Jackson's presidential portrait. That painting was a fawning bit of sympathetic press, created by the closest thing you might imagine to a Fox News painter. Earl imagined Jackson in the mission-accomplished military dress that he wore when he found fame as the young general who routed the British in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
On the other hand, given President Bush's rock-bottom approval ratings, it wouldn't be a surprise if he were given the same treatment that Washington Bogart Cooper reserved for Andrew Johnson. That portrait shows fully the Reconstruction-era president's paranoid, embittered, and hostile pose. Perhaps it was written so clearly on his face, Cooper couldn't help but reveal that Johnson's was a mug not even a War Democrat could love.
Yeo's is a rendition of Bush that Republicans can't countenance -- what with pornographic imagery flying in the face of everything the party of family values purportedly stands for (foot-tapping bathroom trysts notwithstanding). In fact, the disembodied sex organs and erogenous zones that make up Bush's face don't convey any political message -- at least, nothing more specific than disrespect. (That seems not to have been the artist's stated intent: "I did it for fun, not to offend, but I'm pleased with it. I did it to amuse," Yeo told The Sun, a British tabloid.)
Certainly, Bush's record on sexual-health issues is poor by liberal standards: President Bush enacted the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a law that was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision (a majority aided by two new judges appointed by Bush). His administration has made abstinence-only education nearly a mandate. Within international programs such as the U.N. and U.N. Population Fund, the Bush administration has deprecated efforts to promote access to reproductive health care and education. Still, the Bush administration has never been popularly considered or satirized as lascivious in nature, and hardcore pornography is hardly a proven platform for feminist critique. It would be misguided to suggest that splattering the President's face with porn amounts to a substantive dismissal of his record on sexual politics or advocacy of an alternative platform. Clearly, Yeo is playing up only the negative, shameful connotations associated with sex.
While visceral, Yeo's portrait is not even the most cutting visual image ever directed at the Bush administration. The most notable example is Richard Serra's "Stop Bush," a 2004 painting done with lithocrayon (paintstick) on mylar. Serra, whose massive-scale sculpture is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, discounted this piece as political propaganda, not art; the painting features a silhouetted, hooded Abu Ghraib figure, painted to suggest the stocky figures from Francisco Goya's political protest paintings. Hanging above the figure in the surrounding gray void is the crudely scrawled phrase, "Stop Bush."
A photograph taken by Christopher Morris, titled "Portrait of Power," is a finer, subtler jab at the power dynamics of the Bush administration. Snapped for Time in 2005, the black-and-white portrait shows Bush standing with Vice President Dick Cheney at his right and then Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld at his left. Cheney and Rumsfeld wear khakis and dark blazers, where as Bush sports dark jeans and a white short-sleeve button-up; the variations in color and dress complement each other, giving the men a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil quality. Morris lines up the picture such that, while Bush stands with a macho pose that suggests he's about to draw his guns, the road behind them extends in the Vice President's direction. All roads lead to Cheney, as it were.
Yeo's portrait exceeds the limits of such polite but pointed commentary, entering instead the realm of juvenile protest and caricature. He isn't the first to do so. After a Vatican bureaucrat, Biagio da Cesena, complained that Michaelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel took liberties with theology and showed too much skin, Michaelangelo responded by painting his visage on the figure of Minos, a figure in hell, and affixing a snake to his crotch. Yeo has only updated the technology used to defile and deface the image of political authority -- a tradition as long and established as portraiture itself.
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