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EYE SPY: Portraits of an iron lady

Political portraits sometimes yield rare truths about their subjects—but hold back just as many
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First Published: Fri, Apr 12 2013. 03 03 PM IST
During her lifetime, Thatcher sat for a number of portraits, though she proved to be a fount of inspiration for artists even when she was not offering herself as a subject of study. Photo: AFP
During her lifetime, Thatcher sat for a number of portraits, though she proved to be a fount of inspiration for artists even when she was not offering herself as a subject of study. Photo: AFP
Margaret Thatcher died on Monday, may her troubled soul finally rest in peace, but she had to die several inglorious deaths even when she was very much alive.
An eight-feet-high statue of the former British prime minister, made by British artist Neil Simmons, was decapitated by an anti-capitalist protester when it was on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London in 2002. Incredibly, the work had been commissioned by the House of Commons at a cost of £150,000 in spite of heated opposition from the Tories.
In India, the veneration of political leaders (dead or alive) in stone is a routine, if not blasé, matter. From Mahatma Gandhi in loincloth to Mayawati with her handbag, oversize idols of the makers and breakers of Indian democracy are ubiquitous in public spaces.
But we know that the anger of the people can make heads roll, especially in England, which has a hallowed tradition of beheading its kings and queens. In the headless Thatcher incident, the ironies seemed to have been laid on with a trowel. For most of her political life, Thatcher behaved like the obnoxious Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland who lived by the simple motto: “Off with their heads!” For a change, she seemed to be at the receiving end.
The marmoreal likeness did, however, suit Mrs T down to a T. She was popularly described as cold, calculating, and chilling. I remember watching Glenn Close playing Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians movie and thinking Thatcher would have fitted the role just as well. When her biopic was made, Meryl Streep was accused of portraying her as being more vulnerable than she merited. However, Phyllida Lord, the director, cannily used the first prelude from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, as a refrain in the soundtrack, which subtly reflected her subject’s inherent ambiguities. A baroque masterpiece that packs a lilting melody within its terse format, this short piece makes the viewer alert to the ripples beneath the Iron Lady’s icy exterior.
During her lifetime, Thatcher sat for a number of portraits, though she proved to be a fount of inspiration for artists even when she was not offering herself as a subject of study. Sample this gallery of portraits of Thatcher—eyes gouged out, disfigured, looking like the living dead—for the range of reactions she evoked from artists.
But was Thatcher really evil incarnate, or just as banal as any average political leader? Did her fingers actually look like talons, or were they as claw-like as the withered hands of any other elderly lady? Were the lines around her mouth cruel? Were her eyes narrow with cunning? Or are these merely projections of people’s reactions to her political career?
Historically, the project of fashioning a leader’s public persona, by using a certain kind of iconography, has been common to the PR machinery of all political cultures. From Holbein’s 1537 Whitehall mural of Henry VIII affecting a macho swagger (an all-time high in the history of self-promotion) to Ingres’ 1806 portrait of Napoleon (looking profoundly ill at ease in full regalia) to Tom Stoddart’s photograph of Gordon Brown taking the tube to work (as passengers around him struggle to feign nonchalance), the history of political portraiture is rich with meaning, induced or intrinsic. A portrait gives us enough clues into the subject’s personality without ever quite letting us into the inner sanctum of their soul.
Homai Vyarawalla, Margaret Bourke-White, Sunil Janah and Henri-Cartier Bresson (during his brief visit to the country in 1948, which coincided with Gandhi’s assassination) captured iconic images of Indian political leaders, especially of Nehru, Gandhi and others who fought for the Independence. In recent years, photographers like Callie Shell, Nadav Kander, Platon Antoniou and Annie Leibovitz have turned political portraiture into a fine art. Except for Leibovitz, who rose to eminence as a fashion and music photographer (especially remembered for her image of a naked John Lennon lying astride a fully-clothed Yoko Ono), the other three had worked, at some point or the other, as regular press photographers on the political beat.
Shell, who started photographing Barack Obama long before he was anywhere close to being the president of the United States, has made some of the most unforgettable portraits of the president. In one, we see Obama looking at the papers in what looks like a diner, with his wife Michelle asleep, reclined against him. Leibovitz’s startling photographs of Queen Elizabeth II simulated a neoclassical finish, reminding us of the painterly elegance of the Old Masters, especially of Vermeer, with their beautiful harmony among light, shade and colours.
As we begin to spend time with the works of Shell, Kander or Leibovitz, we learn to peel the film of familiarity off their subjects and glimpse their inner mysteries in fits and starts. We are afforded the odd epiphany, the rare truth that usually stays the creators of images, refusing to yield to the scrutiny of the viewers.
Martin Argles, a reputed political photographer, once said that “Thatcher could be immensely kind”. To those of us who knew her only through news images, she looked anything but.
A fortnightly look at the world of art from close and afar.
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First Published: Fri, Apr 12 2013. 03 03 PM IST
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