The Obamas returned this Wednesday to their old home: the White House. they lived there eight years, and the new tenants, Joe and Jill Biden, had invited them for a ceremony with the scent of American political-artistic eternity: the unveiling of the couple’s portraits, Barack and Michelle, which will hang in the presidential complex.
Its previous occupant, Donald Trump, never saw fit to receive them, despite the fact that tradition dictates since the times of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (or rather, since those of his wife Jackie, mother of invention) that the presidents must open the doors of the White House to the previous resident in a sign of bipartisan sportsmanship to post the testimony of their passage through those rooms, regardless of the political affiliation of each one. Trump also broke that rule of etiquette.
“Barack and Michelle, welcome home!” Biden exclaimed at the beginning of his speech, in which he highlighted “the integrity and moral decency” of his predecessor, under whom he served as vice president, before reviewing the achievements of his eight years together in the White House, especially in health matters and in the economic recovery after the 2008 crisis. To Michelle, Biden said in a complicit whisper: “He knows it, we all know it: he could not have done it without your help” .
After the president’s intervention, the Obamas took the stage to remove the veil that hid the paintings during a relaxed act, marked by the humor and euphoria of those present (clearly, both teams were playing at home). It was held in the eastern room of the complex, packed with journalists and members of both administrations (“some of them dumb enough to work in one or the other,” Biden joked). That gave the affair an air of an old school reunion. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the moment when the Obamas would once again make history by becoming the first African-Americans to enter that exclusive gallery of great men and women.
Two artists for two portraits
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
The hyperrealist painter Robert McCurdy has been chosen to represent Barack. Theirs are oil paintings with the virtue of being very similar to a photograph to the point of making the eye doubt. He is specialized in the impassive representation of great characters, from the Dalai Lama to Toni Morrison or Jeff Bezos, and thus has immortalized the former president, standing, with his hands in his pockets, younger than he was seen this Wednesday and looking from in front of the viewer.
She, for her part, has chosen Sharon Sprung, a relatively unknown New York figurative artist, whose career took a huge leap forward on Wednesday. Sprung painted the former first lady seated, looking relaxed, against a pink background. “I want to thank you for capturing everything that I appreciate in Michelle. The grace of her, the intelligence of her and the fact that she is fine,” Barack Obama said. The author of her own portrait highlighted the “thoroughness”, although that means that she has not spared, despite the former president’s attempts, her “big ears”, “gray hair” or “the wrinkles of the shirt” .
Then his wife took the floor, who had to get serious: “Traditions like this matter,” he said in thinly veiled reference to Trump, “not only for those of us who hold these positions, but for all those who participate in the surveillance of our democracy . We are celebrating an inauguration for a reason: to guarantee a peaceful transition of power.” He also elaborated a heartfelt speech on what the fact that a couple like the one formed by them managed to reside “at the most famous address in the world” still says about the battered American dream.
As happens with those old paintings that hide compositions on which the artists painted over, the cordial layer of paint of today’s ceremony beat a less harmonious reality, according to the bone scan published by The Washington Post. Barack Obama had already returned to the White House in April to celebrate the eleventh anniversary of the Health Care Act, better known as the obama care. Then, he joked calling Biden for the position he held during his eight years at the helm: “Thank you, Vice President Biden,” he told him.
According to the post, That did not sit well at all, and there is “tension and jealousy” between the teams of both, despite the fact that the bosses have always shown great personal harmony. A tune that Obama wanted to expressly underline: “They say that if you want to have a friend in this city, the best thing is to find a dog. I was extremely lucky for eight years to have a true companion and a true friend in Joe. Next week the publication of a book entitled The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama (The long alliance. The imperfect union between Joe Biden and Barack Obama), in which Gabriel Debenedetti, journalist from the magazine nyc, questions the ideal portrait of the relationship.
Obama was the last president to welcome the enemy into the house. He did it in 2012, at the end of his first legislature, at the edge of the elections in which he revalidated his presidency. In an act in which good humor reigned, George W. and Laura Bush showed the world their portraits, which they commissioned from Texan John Howard Sanden. He said it was reassuring to think that his successor could at least look at his painting in difficult times, and wonder, “What would George do?” Obama, for his part, thanked the “great package of sports television channels” that Bush left in his wake, and stated: “We may have our political differences, but the presidency transcends those differences.”
after that, the Obamas delivered in 2018 with the other presidential rite of passage in artistic terms: to present their respective portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, where the effigies of the presidents are hung, once their terms have been completed. Above this Wednesday, more conservative, as the scenario advises, that is a choice that invites the imagination. And if all aesthetic decisions are in some way political, that of the Obamas was especially so.
Barack chose Kehinde Wiley, one of the most relevant black painters of our time, thanks to his portraits of African-American men and women depicted with an anachronistic air and egregious bearing in the manner of the old masters, against the background of colorful wallpaper. The first lady opted for the painter, also African-American, Amy Sherald. The canvases then embarked on a successful tour of the United States. In both cases, it was the first time that a non-white artist received the solemn commission in Washington, which is part of a long tradition in Western painting, from Velázquez and Felipe VI to Ingres and Napoleon.
A walk through the Washingtonian portrait gallery allows us to understand how each leader chose to be remembered: Bill Clinton, for example, looked for the crazy realist painter Chuck Close, while Trump decided to be the first to provide a photo, a low angle shot made by the magazine Time in the Oval Office. When he was in it, the 45th president made decisions like send Clinton and Bush Jr. from the main lobby to “a little room.”
Biden returned the paintings to their preeminent place after being sworn in. Now it remains to be seen if he plans to invite Trump and his wife Melania to unveil their respective portraits (also if the honorees would accept, given the climate of extreme polarization). Biden spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre was asked Tuesday, and she dodged the bulge as best she could: It’s a decision, she said, for the White House Historical Association to make.