When I heard earlier today that there was some “thing” about the new official portrait of Michelle Obama — a social media kerfuffle, like a great disturbance in the force with a million voices crying out and whatnot — I wondered how bad it could possibly be.
People usually try to be polite, right? And presumably the Obamas would be painted in a manner conventional enough for the Smithsonian?
I’m feeling a little out of it, now that I’ve seen the portraits, because I don’t see the problem here. For one thing, the portrait of Michelle Obama looks recognizable to me. You wouldn’t have to spot me all the consonants. I’d know the subject for Michelle Obama even if you rolled me out of a sound sleep and showed it to me at 2 AM.
The artist, Amy Sherald, didn’t choose a vivid color palette, and some people are complaining about that. But it’s a distinctive artistic representation chosen by Michelle, and I don’t have a problem with it. I even think the slightly glacial stillness of it is kind of thought-provoking. The drape and dimensions of the skirt, along with the carefully crafted pops of color in it, in my view capture the line of Michelle Obama perfectly.
The portrait of Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley, is warmer and artsier. I don’t know that that’s the direction I would have gone, but the chair back is The Bomb, and his portrait too is thought-provoking.
Interesting that both of them made the choices they did. Weird that there had to be a big deal about how Michelle’s came out. For what it’s worth, I think Amy Sherald can be proud of her work. No one can be surprised at Barack Obama being depicted in a bed of friendly green foliage, presumably by an artist (Wiley) who regards him as a sympathetic and congenial subject. But with the portrait of Michelle, perhaps Sherald sees with a unique eye that resonates more with the subject’s self-perception than we might suspect. It’s as if the patina of life and time has set some lines more perfectly, and faded some things and punctuated others. “Human” happened here. Fine by me.