Do you like art? A lot of us might answer that it really depends on our own gut reaction.
How about official portraits? Do they count as art? Much of the time, they come across as standard imagery – rituals of power or staid organizational structure.
I’m asking because this week Canada’s current Governor General, David Johnston, precided over the ceremonial unveiling of the official portrait of his predecessor, Michaëlle Jean, the 27thGovernor General of Canada since confederation in 1867. Ottawa’s Karen Bailey was the artist.
Jean was not Canada’s first female Governor General, nor was she the first visible minority in that role. (For what it’s worth, “visible minority” is a Canadian term – yet another imperfect attempt to lable race and acknowledge diversity.)
Here’s a full list and brief bio of past Governors General. Wikipedia lists that function back to Governors of pre-confederation Canada here. How the job fits into Canada’s system of constitutional monarchy is outlined here.
It’s often awkward to discuss how looks affect perception. But it’s hard to deny that Michaëlle Jean is glamourous. I think it is fair to say her photogenic charisma ensured more attention than, say, David Johnston seemingly gets in the same role.
Jean’s official portrait also strikes a different mood. Here’s how the Ottawa Citizen describes it:
Painted by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey, it shows Jean surrounded by a dozen-and-a-half people, including her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, their adopted daughter Marie-Éden — visible twice in the painting, as the six-year-old she was when Jean was installed as governor general in 2005, and as an older, BlackBerry-toting youth — and their family dog, Shuka.
Also depicted are three medical personnel from the Role 3 military hospital in Kandahar, the governor general’s aide-de-camp, a Haida drummer, some children and a Second World War veteran.
Bruce Deachman’s article quotes Jean saying she didn’t want to be presented by herself “…simply because I never stood nor walked alone on this wonderful journey across our country.”
It can’t be easy to be the artist commissioned to do this sort of work. Follow convention, or go bold and daring? Whom to please? The individual sitter? The painter’s own artistic sensibilities? The nation at large?
Here is a Wikipedia article on the topic in regards to official portraits for U.S. presidents (scroll to the bottom for the image gallery). The article says Barack Obama was the first president to use a digital photograph (in 2009) for his official image. The traditional oil portrait of Obama will follow at the end of his presidency – be that one term or two.
I don’t have any big point to make. It’s just interesting to see ways artists approach this task and note how the end result reflects changes in art and society along the way.
And this painting? I rather like it.
Inclusiveness and representation of groups (‘veterans’, ‘youth’, ‘minorities’ etc.) can be taken too far. It’s easy to feel jaded and cynical about manipulative marketing.
But – setting aside any fans and critics - Michaëlle Jean really comes across as “a people person”. I’d say this portrait reflects that pretty well. (Or am I just swallowing the branding?)
Does it work for you as art?
Does it convey Jean’s time as Governor General?
Something I do enjoy about art is how each reaction is perfectly valid.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.