Portraits: Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey – National Portrait Gallery


Hello, My name is Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery. We had two great presidential moments
last winter at the National Portrait Gallery. We
collect portraits of all the presidents, of course, and in December of 2008, The President
and First Lady came to unveil a wonderful portrait of George W. Bush by his class mate, Robert Anderson, a very
successful painting in my view. And then in January of 2009, over inauguration
weekend, we unveiled a very different kind of
portrait: Shepard Fairey’s Hope Image of Barack Obama. All of our
inauguration visitors immediately recognized the hope portrait as the iconic image of Barack Obama’s
campaign. As everyone knows, Fairey’s design spawned hundreds of thousands of small
stickers and t-shirts and posters and literally uncountable copies from the free downloadable version on
the web. To us, it was very intriguing that a political
portrait could have such a widespread impact. But although our
visitors recognize the image and understood its
significance in terms of the nature of the campaign
and the ultimate success of the candidate, people have been amazed when they see our fine art version of Fairey’s Obama
portrait in person.You certainly have all the
recognizable elements have the basic design: that
simplified stenciled face, visionary upward and outward glance, the division between
behalf red and a half blue referencing the
political spectrum of the electorate. All that is very familiar, but when you
stand in front of this piece, it is quite overwhelming. It is
surprisingly large; much bigger than the familiar poster. And
scale really is important. Fairey had studied
the history visual propaganda and political graphics and is drawn to those grandiose portraits of Stalin, for instance. and although he understands the negative side of authoritarian imagery, he also really admires its power. And he speaks of this image as a form of
positive propaganda retaining that compelling power, but
substituting inspiration for that sense of
threatening control. So size really enhances that impact. The symbolic colors are also more subtle and beautiful than
people guessed. There are multiple blues; the reds have
an almost oriental orange tinge as well subtle
overlay of gold, and it isn’t a pure white either. There is certainly symbolic
significance in the fact that it is off white.
The other distinctive element here is the very complex and beautiful collage surface, which you don’t get any sense of in many other versions. Beneath the stenciled face, are layers of paper. Some of these elegant, decorative, papers are Fairey’s
own design. And you can recognize in places
star-shaped obey image that’s a famous part of the
artist street art. It is translated here into an elaborate, beautiful, ornamental background. Fairey also loves and collects old newspapers, which he has collaged onto
this complex surface. What the Cubist artists at the beginning
of the 20th century loved about newspaper collage was its seemingly random, but strangely evocative associations, and I think you
get that quality here. When you study this piece closely, interesting words start popping out at
you. “Beautiful” “Fresh Vision” “No Mess” “Stay Up” “Purity” “Best” “Player” There’s some negative words, as well. “Weak” “Falling” “Drowning” But juxtaposing the larger
number of positive words against the negative
seems to imply the mindset artist echoing Obama supporters. Many people, young people especially,
really bought into this image and the concept of a
fresh, new voice to set against the serious perils confronting
the country. So we hope a lot of people will have an
opportunity to visit the museum and see this piece in person. Maybe others will find words in the newsprint that I missed. Yes, we caught the idea of that strong
graphic every time it flashed by us during the campaign, but now we have a portrait that had a true political significance
but also deserves a more in-depth study and appreciation. What more could you ask from a work of
art?

4 Replies to “Portraits: Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey – National Portrait Gallery”

  1. Capitalism in its own right does not work, thats why you have socialism in the USA in for the form of Social Security and Medicare and Medicade. You need a mixture of idealologies. You have had 200 plus years of private healthcare not solving the problem of universal healthcare as you still have 49 million people without coverage. A National healthcare system would solve this problem, but you fools are too NEGATIVE to see the truth

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