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The Obama Portraits: The Book, The Traveling Exhibition, T-Shirts, Coasters, Umbrella…

Speaking of Kehinde Wiley (as I did in my previous post), the celebratory unveiling of the Obama Portraits almost two years ago at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), was one of the most joyous occasions I’ve ever had the pleasure of covering, even though, as I later wrote, “neither portrait captures what, for me, is the essence of these two warmly compassionate, deeply intelligent, barrier-breaking achievers.”

Fond memories of that event came flooding back to me a few days ago, when I received a press copy of this new book, published by Princeton University Press in association with the National Portrait Gallery:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To be released Feb. 11, it’s a companion volume for the recently announced Obama Portraits Tour, launching in June 2021 at the Art Institute of Chicago (where the couple dated), and traveling to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, High Museum and Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

The photo below (taken by another attending journalist) captures my chance encounter with Wiley (after the conclusion of the program) which was a special highlight of my time at the NPG:

Kehinde Wiley chatting with me at the National Portrait Gallery on the evening before his portrait of Barack Obama would be hung on the wall behind him
Photo by Menachem Wecker

Those of us in the roped-off press pen couldn’t approach the Obamas themselves, only their portraits, after the program had concluded and the Obama Administration alums had departed. Here are the very dissimilar pendants, as photographed by me immediately after the unveiling, after which they were split apart for display in two far-flung galleries at the museum:

Kehinde Wiley, “Barack Obama,” 2018; Amy Sherald, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a gender-equality gesture, the book’s jacket is designed so you can choose which Obama gets the cover treatment. The photo at the top of this post shows the appearance of the book after I unwrapped the parcel I received. But if you’re a Michelle fan, you can reconfigure it by unfolding the cover…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and flipping it over to the other side, so the book looks like this when you refold the jacket:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For someone like me who had already seen the paintings and heard the encomiums, the freshest takes in the new book were in the essay contributed by Richard Powell, who analyzed the portraits in the context of American history and art history. Powell is familiar to CultureGrrl readers as the curator for the Whitney Museum’s groundbreaking 2015-16 Archibald Motley show, which gave an insufficiently appreciated early 20th-century African American artist his due:

Richard Powell, right, with then Whitney curator Carter Foster at Archibald Motley press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

An art history professor at Duke University, Powell proposes in his “Obama Portraits” essay that this Lincoln portrait in the NPG’s collection “serves as an illuminating, somewhat analogous counterpart to Wiley’s painting,” mainly because of the presidential pose—leaning forward on a wooden chair:

George Peter Alexander Healy, “Abraham Lincoln,” 1887
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In my own analysis—at 0:53 in my CultureGrrl Video tour of the NPG’s “America’s Presidents” galleries, at the end of this post—I pointed to a different Lincoln portrait in the NPG’s collection as a possible touchstone for Wiley—the famous “cracked plate” photograph, which is rarely exhibited because of its light sensitivity. (You can see the crack starting in the upper left corner and extending to the right side of the image.)

Alexander Gardner, “Abraham Lincoln” (“cracked plate portrait”), 1865 (2 months before Lincoln’s assassination)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the my comparison of these two deeply creased physiognomies, as stated in my video’s narration:

You get the feeling that the weight of the world is in that face [in Gardner’s photograph], and maybe there’s something of that in Wiley’s “Obama” portrait, that makes me wonder if he actually had this [the photograph] in mind. He [Wiley] certainly relied on classic images of a more grandiose kind for some of his portraits.

Perhaps Wiley had even seen the moving 2014 photo in the new book (p. 91) of an informally dressed Obama gazing at Gardner’s “Lincoln” beside his daughter Malia, with the First Lady standing behind them.

Powell also makes a telling comparison between Wiley’s “Obama” and this Horace Pippin painting, done in the last year of his life and thought to be a self-portrait:

Horace Pippin, “The Park Bench (Man on a Bench),” 1946, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Powell observes the “overarching sense of isolation in a constructed landscape,” using “many of he same visual strategies that Wiley would employ in the presidential portrait,” which are intended to “capture…a contender at the end of a professional and personal odyssey.” He also notes that the flourishing greenery in Wiley’s scene implies a hope for “a recurring season of new growth.”

The biggest surprise for me among the new book’s revelations was the coincidental connection between the two Obama portraits: A photo in “The Obama Portraits” shows Michelle posing for her close-up in a leafy garden setting, reminiscent of the backdrop for her husband’s portrait.

Here’s my photo of that page:

“The Obama Portraits,” p. 39

According to the book’s essay by Dorothy Moss, the NPG’s painting and sculpture curator, “neither artist knew of of the other’s choices, resulting in an unintentional synergy.” That said, Sherald ditched the greenery in favor of what Moss describes as “a celestial space”—“a blue backdrop…[that] impresses upon the viewer a transcendent state of being.”

To me, it was simply a device for focusing attention on the serene subject herself, without the distractions afforded by a busier background, like Barack’s leafy surrounds, encroaching on his ankles and shoulder and threatening to engulf him (but inspiring gasps of admiration when the portrait was unveiled).

Raising the NPG’s national profile and nearly doubling its attendance to a record 2.1 million in fiscal 2018, the Obama portraits are gifts that keep on giving back to the museum that commissioned them from the artists. Their impact will soon spread to the five museums they will visit.

Presumably, the Smithsonian’s retail paraphernalia will travel with them. With 23 items exploiting the popular appeal of Wiley’s and Sherald’s portraits currently arrayed for sale on the NPG’s website, the Smithsonian Institution’s merchandising masterminds have found a way to turn an uplifting event into something bordering on tacky.

Here are some sample knock-offs:

His & Her T-Shirts, Mug, Set of 4 Coasters

There are also, of course, “Michelle” variants of the above mug and coasters. The first lady also scores an exclusive—a product riffing on her attire (which seems to overwhelm her in the portrait, pulling attention away from her face):

The “Portrait-Inspired Scarf”

The new book does not appear (at this writing) on the NPG’s website for Obama merchandise, but Michelle‘s bestselling memoir, “Becoming,” can be added to your online shopping cart. (Why not Dreams from My Father? Outdated?)

But enough about books. Let the President’s verdant canopy be your umbrella:

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