Many of you have by now seen the official portrait of President Obama, which shows him seated not quite squarely on a chair that is partly swallowed in a wall of luxuriant vegetation. It is in many respects an odd picture, as I suppose befits an odd man.
I am most struck by the absence of depth, since neither the President nor his surroundings seem to extend in three dimensions. The wall of leaves is, for instance, background in some places and foreground in others—but every single leaf is nevertheless fixed on the same vertical plain. The light that falls on the leaves that cover the President’s feet is, as you can see, exactly the same light that falls on the leaves behind his head. This means that there is no suggestion of a level plain lying beneath the president’s feet, or beneath the legs of his chair, and that far from resting on God’s green earth, the President and his chair are fastened like appliqué to that two-dimensional wall of foliage.
The flatness of the picture is also evident in the absence of a shadow to the President’s left. There are, to be sure, some small shadows on the President’s face, but my overall impression is of a two-dimensional man looking out from a two-dimensional world.
This of course breaks with the Western tradition of portraiture, as I can only suppose it was intended to break with that tradition. To see what I mean, compare the Obama portrait to the official portrait of President Regan, which shows a decidedly three-dimensional man in a decidedly three-dimensional world.
What places the Regan portrait most distinctly in the Western tradition is the receding landscape that forms the background of the painting. Instead of a flat and opaque wall of leaves, this background is a boundless prospect that runs away to the distant Jefferson Memorial, and to the Potomac estuary beyond.
Oswald Spengler said that this sort of prospect, or “depth perspective,” is the defining element in Faustian art, for it expresses the Western will-to-power over space.
“The Faustian . . . projected the center of gravity . . . into the distance by the means of perspective . . . . When ‘natural’ backgrounds, with their blue-green heavens, far horizons and depth perspectives, began to appear in early Gothic . . . . Faustian Christianity attained to consciousness of itself.” Decline of the West, vol. 1 (1918)
Landscape with a far horizon is, in other words, the symbol through which Western man is conscious of himself.
“The background . . . gains a preponderant importance . . . . as a symbol of the infinite . . . .”
“With the 16th century, the decisive epochal turn begins for Western painting . . . . The technique of oils becomes the basis of an art that means to conquer space . . .” Decline of the West, vol. 1 (1918)
But there is no far horizon in the Obama portrait—no depth, no “distance”—and if the leafy background is a symbol, it is very far from being a symbol of “the infinite.” I am tempted to say it is a symbol of finality, and that this may explain the metaphysical unease the Obama portrait arouses in some who have seen it. Western man cannot live without the prospect of a far horizon, for as Spengler said, a far horizon is the symbol of the Western soul.
Such was the thought of one Western man as he traveled through the Congo jungle, hemmed between opaque walls of luxuriant vegetation and pining for deep prospects and wide spaces:
“I believe a long stay in this forest would lead to heavy mental depression in sensitive men. The unutterable feeling of oppression which makes itself felt in the course of time lies in the absence of free view, the impossibility of permitting the eye to rove freely across a wide space, or of once catching a glimpse of sky and earth merging in the far horizon.” (Adolf Friedrich Mecklenburg-Schwerin, In the Heart of Africa )
Might this be the forest in President Obama’s portrait?