Image and Power
Let’s start with the bigger picture: the history of painted political portraiture in Britain has become a sad affair. You could blame Clementine Churchill for destroying Sutherland’s monumental depiction of the ageing Winston, but modernism’s self-reflexive tendencies and mechanical reproduction had inflicted serious damage for decades before. And there was the British genius for satire too. Plenty of artists from Holbein and Van Dyck to Gainsborough, Reynolds and, later, John Singer Sargent produced compelling paintings of the powers that were, but the images of politicians that resonate strongest over the past two centuries are those of Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank. Then, just over a decade ago, a young painter stepped into this rather bleak arena and began to reinvigorate it.
Being the son of a former cabinet minister gives Jonathan Yeo an insider’s perspective, a sense of what motivates a politician, but his strength has been a critical detachment – the reassuring bedside manner of an old-fashioned doctor, albeit one with a mischievous glint in his eye. He also has an understated but acute satirical edge, and it is this combination that makes him trusted (and distrusted) by sitter and viewer alike.
Proportional Representation was his political debut and a response to the media-saturated general election of 2001. Through a process of negotiation that involved telling each of the three main party leaders that the others were on board, he got their agreement. Tony Blair, the most image-conscious politician of our age, was the most reluctant but acquiesced in the end. Initially, Yeo had wanted to sketch the leaders on the campaign trail but it proved too difficult, so he opted for a format that nods back, perhaps, to Godfrey Kneller’s Kit-cat portraits of three centuries earlier. But rather than adopt the same format for each, as Kneller had done, he composed the paintings according to the percentage of the vote that each party won. This ‘gentle conceptual device’, as he calls it, adds a narrative twist, reflecting the result and alluding to arguments about proportionate media coverage. It also throws the debate about electoral systems into the mix, but ultimately it focuses on the mediation of personality in political campaigning. It seeks ‘to convey to someone in the future the experience of judging what was a presidential beauty contest via a rectangular screen on the wall’.
Six years later, Blair sat again for Yeo. The difference in his demeanour is striking. The notion that a face is, as the American painter Chuck Close described it, ‘a road-map of human experience’ is charted in every fold and wrinkle on Blair’s world-weary visage. The self-confident vitality of the previous painting is replaced by a more introspective gravity. By this time, it was ‘becoming clear that he would always be remembered for his foreign policy misadventures’, which threw down a challenge to find ‘the right symbolism that wouldn’t seem too heavy handed or clumsy’. After various ideas had been discounted, the answer was suddenly presented on a plate – or rather a lapel. As it was the run-up to Remembrance Sunday in November, when anyone in British public life who does not wear a poppy is castigated by the media, Blair arrived for his sitting wearing one. He asked if he should remove it, but the painter realised its value. Its impact is formal – a splash of colour that invigorates the painting. But it also reads symbolically – a commemoration of the dead from two world wars, but equally of those who had died in the Iraq War and Blair and Bush’s nebulous War on Terror. In addition, it was ‘an ironic echo of the New Labour red rose’. Here in a few vivid red brushstrokes was a symbol of hope, victory, fragility, responsibility and death. Another aspect of the painting is the ethereal green backdrop against which Blair’s head is placed in stark relief, giving an otherworldly quality to the image. As with Giacometti’s portraits, I find an overwhelming sense of the void here that seems to seep down into his jacket and shirt and threatens to overwhelm the figure. Once again, Yeo is playing with pictorial and by extension political ambivalence and poses the question, how will Blair be seen once the mists of time and memory have played their part?
There is a similar ambivalence in his depiction of Rupert Murdoch. The looseness of brushstroke and overlapping planes of paint give the image a kind of ‘you think you see me clearly but now you don’t’ quality as if to emphasise the familiarity and mysteriousness of one of the world’s most powerful men. His stare is a potent mixture of benevolent humanity and malevolent steeliness – or perhaps that’s just my reading. What is clear, though, is Murdoch’s elusiveness. Is this an old man whose powers are visibly diminishing or is he acting out, hiding behind a sympathetic mask but still fundamentally and ruthlessly in control?
Recently, Yeo has turned his gaze away from politics to cosmetic surgery, appropriate for an artist who can get under the skin of his sitters. He has also emerged as a seriously good painter of creative individuals – the artist’s portrait artist perhaps. But his evolving form of political portraiture is where his own historical reputation should be won … or lost.