Kehinde Wiley’s keenly awaited portrait of the 44th president of the United States is a disappointment. It says much less about Barack Obama than Pete Souza’s photograph of the president bending down to let a little boy touch his hair. And it is unlikely to be remembered in the same way as Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster.
Commissioned for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where it joins portraits going back to Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 heroic portrait of George Washington, Wiley’s painting is too hung up on history. It plays self-consciously with the tradition of grand manner portraiture, at once ironising that tradition and proudly adding America’s first black president to it.
Sitting Obama in an antique wooden chair, having him lean forward imposingly so his head seems almost unfeasibly large, the painting aims for authority yet has a tame boardroom quality under its gloss of subversive stylistic play. I don’t get much insight into Obama. He seems even more remote that he does when in an interview or waving from the steps of an aeroplane. A man with great gifts of communication and empathy is made to look distant and formal.
That may be the intention. Wiley goes for a very similar effect in a 2009 portrait of LL Cool J that has also been shown at the Smithsonian. Here too he sits his subject in a classy chair. While LL Cool J leans back instead of sitting forward, there is the same sense of a high society or corporate portrait that could hang in a country club. There’s even a crest. Yet it works because it is a portrait of a rapper. It turns old hierarchies upside down and inverts America’s codes of race, class and power.
Obama has already, through his own life, challenged those codes, and not in a way that is easy to compare to anyone else. He deserved a closer look from Wiley. He demanded to be seen afresh, as the unique person he is. The artist has fitted Obama into a grid of stylistic jokes and art-history erudition, instead of capturing his essence.
The painting even features a stale bit of symbolism within its background of flowers: chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, jasmines to symbolise his youth in Hawaii and African blue lilies for his paternal heritage. We would not have time for such symbolism in a 19th-century portrait – we’d see it as dull. It is dull. Wiley has mistaken knowingness for depth. His painting is too rational, like a cold marble statue in a mausoleum. It will not tell future ages what made Obama special.
At the unveiling, these faults were all too apparent because Wiley’s Obama was hung next to Amy Sherald’s beguiling portrait of Michelle Obama. The former first lady completely upstages him on canvas. Sherald’s painting is immediately fascinating, haunting and human. Its muted colours are poetic and unexpected. Its shape, with Michelle wearing a wide-skirted dress with a bold abstract design, bursts out of realism into the patterned, aestheticised freedom that James McNeill Whistler and Gustav Klimt pioneered in portraiture. As in Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Sherald uses a billowing dress to give her subject a monumental, heroic grandeur. Where Wiley freezes the president in the ice of authority, Sherald sets up her painting as a monument only in order to humanise and hearten it.
The pose Michelle adopts is anything but formal or offputting. She sits introspectively, as if sharing a secret. She looks vulnerable and exposed, a human being without pompous armour. The soft, poetic tones of Sherald’s painting are disarming and completely unexpected in a formal portrait.
It is not easy to paint a portrait that captures a sense of history while resisting the arrogance and tameness of a genre crushed by its own past and challenged as never before by the age of the selfie. Both these artists – who were chosen by the Obamas – are conscious of challenging expectations. Yet Wiley’s irony is much less subversive than Sherald’s emotional truth. Sherald’s painting is remarkable – a new birth for the portrait, even.
Barack Obama commented, with the wit and charm that Wiley has not caught, that Sherald had a much easier job in painting the more beautiful person. What she has done with her promising material is to create a great American portrait in the tradition of Whistler and Warhol. Obama may no longer be president but at least he can say he’s married to a modern-day Mona Lisa.