I first saw this now controversial painting — Margaret Sutherland’s 2011 painting of a nude Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Emperor Haute Couture — when I was serving as a jury member for the Kingston Arts Council’s 11th Annual Juried Art Salon a couple of years ago.
I remember a few of my fellow jurors warning that including the painting in the upcoming exhibition — at the Wilson Room of the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library’s Central Branch — would cause a furor. I wanted to include it for that very reason. So suddenly there was the PM in the buff, naked as a baby for all to see.
And most people didn’t like what they saw — especially in a public library. The outraged tweeting began almost immediately, a few flurries of it at first, eventually swelling into a blizzard. Cowed by the snowstorm of public protest and apparently nervous about the possibility of allowing children to gaze upon the emperor’s new clothes and all that they revealed, chief librarian Patricia Enright suggested, in lieu of actually moving the painting (open censorship), that Sutherland supply a judiciously-sized modesty cloth with which to decorously drape the PM during the hours in which children might be around (partial censorship). This was done. Which of course made everything worse.
The surprising thing — but wait, why should anyone be surprised? — is that the painting is now more controversial than it was the day it was first exhibited. Apparently the shock of nudity doesn’t wear off. The picture is still on my mind because I saw it again recently at the Edward Day Gallery in Toronto. It had been sold, at the height of the controversy, for $5000 to a retired CIDA executive, Danielle Potvin of Montreal. Now it was up for sale again.
The amusing outbursts of ire and outrage the work continues to generate are no doubt traceable to two of the painting’s most obvious attributes: first, it’s a nude (uh oh!). Second, it’s a recumbent nude of Prime Minister Harper (Yikes!). So what we have here is, okay, Harper in the nude.
Sutherland’s painting is probably too clearly beneath the high cultural pale to drag the late Sir Kenneth Clark into this. But it’s hard not to be reminded, when faced with conventional kinds of hysteria about nakedness in art, of Lord Clark’s perpetually useful and delightfully Olympian book, The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, published way back in 1956, wherein are written — on the very first page — these stentorian words: “The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude.”
“To be naked,” Clark continues, “is to be deprived of our clothing, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage no uncomfortable overtone.”
The Stephen Harper of Margaret Sutherland’s painting is indisputably naked, not nude. Indeed it feels as if Sutherland has done everything she possibly could do to deprive the PM of the conventional serenities that attend the presentation of the nude as a study in Ideal Form.
For Harper is a welter of satirically-aimed specificities.
He vaguely inhabits the pose first given to his Olympia by Edouard Manet in 1863. He is recumbent, though the formality of his curiously flesh-coloured divan rather recalls David’s Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800) than Olympia’s rumpled bed.
And while Olympia’s black maid brings her a bundle of flowers, no doubt from a client-admirer, the PM is being offered a paper cup of Tim Hortons coffee, albeit presented on a china plate (amusingly, the Tim Horton’s people sent Sutherland a pointed, rather crisply worded message stating that they “did not serve naked people”). The bringer of the coffee — though you cannot see her face — is, according to the artist, the then International Co-operation Minister, Bev Oda (retired in 2012), much slagged, at the time, for her ostentatious “spending habits.” There are five other suits behind the PM, also headless—a sort of curtain wall of faceless politicians. And Olympia’s black cat has here been replaced by the artist’s own dog, Bela.
My difficulty with the painting — in addition to its rather awkward composition and stiff painterly treatment — lies mostly in its being insufficiently directed towards any clear end. Is Harper being satirized or merely demeaned? (You could argue that Sutherland’s less-than-certain grip on the PM’s anatomy — you should forgive the phrase — is a little demeaning in itself). To be naked is to be revealed, but what revelation is here being offered? And why the over-particularized Tim Hortons coffee? Is the artist also down on the Tim Hortons organization? And why the “Haute Couture” of the title? “Isn’t that just being sarcastic?” I asked Sutherland, during a recent phone conversation. “I prefer to think of it as ironic,” she told me.
None of this matters to the vast e-community of incensed viewers (most of whom cannot possibly have seen the actual painting), who continue to exhibit knee-jerk outrage at 1) painted nakedness and 2) painted Stephen Harper nakedness.
In point of fact, Margaret Sutherland has made much better paintings — all of them following her Emperor Haute Couture. Her Happy Families from 2013 (another title she would call ironic and I would call sarcastic) is much better painted than the Emperor. It depicts a family group — mother, father, daughter — in a way that broadly mocks formal portraiture: the father’s face is partly occluded by a sheet drying on a line and blowing in the wind, while the mother sits directly upon the daughter — as if the girl were a bench.
But her best painting to date is a disturbing work called Sticky. Here, a plump female nude kneels facing away from us, her back a mosaic of multi-coloured Post-It notes. For me, the figure appears to be a sort of human job-jar, a living to-do list. That’s because I couldn’t see, in the photo on my computer screen, what was written on the notes.
Sutherland pointed out to me, however, that the notes are all about eating disorders. Furthermore, she tells me, the notes are rather insulting, mocking, jeering. “The painting, she says, “is all about shame.”