Comment at end
25th April, 2008
PORTRAIT OF A PRIME MINISTER
Listen to “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words” (while reading, if you can double-task!)
Portrait of a Sombre Blair – The Weight and Loneliness of Power
What do YOU think …?
Of the subject – THOUGHTFUL? REFLECTIVE? SORROWFUL? DISAPPOINTED? VULNERABLE? INTROVERTED? ALONE? HAUNTED? ANGRY? BITTER? MANIPULATIVE? DESPAIRING? CALCULATING?
Of the artist’s portrayal – ILLUMINATING? EMPATHIC? CRITICAL? SYCOPHANTIC? JUDGEMENTAL? ACCURATE? PREJUDICED? BEAUTIFUL? DREADFUL?
I FIND IT VERY MOVING
When I first saw this portrait of Tony Blair by the American artist Phil Hale, for whom he sat about a year ago in his last few busy and stressful months as Prime Minister, I did not like it. I have since changed my mind.
The portrait shows an exhausted, isolated and world-weary man, eyes downcast, thoughts elsewhere. It has a quality which is disturbing, partly because of its accuracy in showing how his exhausting work had affected him despite his relishing of the job. Partly because it is so uncharacteristic of the Blair we all knew and loved – oh yes we did – for so long. It is disconcerting and thought-provoking, as art should be. It’s still not the picture we have in our minds when we imagine him, but I believe it will be an important part of history’s record, amongst the thousands of online photographs.
Whatever else you think of it, it is certainly powerful.
I think that this portrayal of Blair has much more depth than the Jonathan Yeo painting – that off-centred work, with the poppy in his buttonhole; its undertones were all of Iraq. This one alludes to more than that. His own disappointments in his premiership; his concerns over past policy matters; issues around his party’s loyalty and future; and last but not least the imprint his premiership has left on our country and its people. He knows that there will be many who will never forgive him for the decision on Iraq. And he knows that there will be many who will feel equal disdain as to the direction he moved his party.
SOME SAY – NOT DROWNING, BUT WAVING
(click here for the original ‘Not waving, but drowning’ poem)
Jonathan Jones of The Guardian in a largely sympathetic article nonetheless heads it thus: “Blair is using art to shape his historical image”.
“Blair looks gloomily away from the artist, fixed on thoughts of his own; he doesn’t conceal age, or exhaustion, or care. It’s a melancholy rather than triumphal image.”
He does end his article with these words, though, so he’s not quite set in the judgemental mould of many in this Blairless land of ours. [my highlighting].
“Remember before he was hated? Once upon a time, Blair displayed immense ability to communicate, as much through nuances of delivery as by anything he actually said. He was good at coming across as basically, you know, a normal guy. In this painting he restates the rhetoric of casualness that was always part of his political success – but does this with what looks, here, like a sense of history and tragedy.
Is there any way Blair will be able to turn his reputation around, to be forgiven or understood or whatever else it would take to resurrect the reputation of the joint architect of the Iraq invasion? If he does ever manage such a turnaround historians may well see in this portrait one of his first moves in the rehabilitation game. It is a subtle act of apparently unbuttoned self-reinvention. Of course, there is always the possibility that what it projects is real emotion.”
So is the message that this complex man is not drowning, but waving? Possibly. Although it’s possible to do both at the same time.
The last sentence in Jonathan Jones’ article reminded me of Blair’s remarks to a Liaison Committee meeting, one of his last, in which he said, when asked about Iraq, “If I didn’t have doubts I wouldn’t be a human being. And I am a human being.”
If this portrait, like Yeo’s is mainly about his ‘war leader’ legacy, Blair the Communicator Without Peer, never quite managed to persuade all of us that he was not motivated by malice aforethought, ulterior motives, or self-serving forces to back America in Iraq. Or, rather, he never quite managed to persuade the liberal press. Is this portrait a silent yet powerful method of communicating? Or is it just an accurate painting of his exhaustion as he fought to embed policies on the NHS & Education, before Brown got his hands on them?
You can accuse Blair of using words to his advantage; his so-called “acting” abilities – the pauses, thoughtful gazes and ‘off-the-cuff’ honed phrases to his audiences. His use of emotion. You can accuse him of that and think you have made your point. But no-one knows what is going on inside another’s heart and mind. It could even be that at times he did feel that he was not waving, but drowning.
Here we get a glimpse of the responsibilities and the loneliness of power.
Blair undoubtedly has abilities of which many an actor would be proud. But is he acting these unspoken lines etched into his face? The drawn expression? The years on display?
How clever. How well acted. And all done without make-up!
Remembering that he IS a human being, perhaps we should ask: what caused him to age so much in just ten short years? And what superhuman qualities do we expect of our politicians?
[Pictures: Early leadership of party/premiership;1997 General Election victory, Downing Street.]
Mr Blair chose not to have a portrait painted in any of the preceding years, when he would have looked so much more relaxed. Yes, and so much younger. This “vain” man never took the time from his work for the portrait. But a portrait painted during time in office IS expected, and I believe is always done. So in his last few weeks as PM he sat for this artist.
The painting shows how the years and the job clearly took their toll. This despite the early, youthful Blair being epitomised by the toothy grin and sparkling blue eyes. Hard to imagine this is the same man who as a new PM at 43, looked 33. Here at 53, he looks several years older.
The painting is dark, his blue eyes dull and heavy. It was a dark period in his life as he tried to condense two years work into six months. And as he tried to understand and rationalise the way it had all turned out for him personally, and for the country.
Greeted with huge acclaim and real affection in 1997, even from those who didn’t vote for him – (I can vouch for that, I was one of those) – he never expected it to end like this. Disappointment, distrust, even hatred. That, so they say, is how many of us felt about him by the spring of 2007. Not me, as you will know.
Perhaps, and of more importance, how he felt about himself is reflected in this portrait.
Blair went out of power in a fashion that he did not deserve; reluctantly, and while he had much unfinished business. Accompanied by the almost apologetic mumblings of some of his colleagues, those little people whose actions I will never understand, and probably never forgive.
As he neared the end of his time as Premier, he was often asked, “how do you feel”. His stock answer was, “I feel very privileged to have done this job”. That was never the intent of the question, and Mr Blair knew it. Perhaps it was too painful or too complicated to put into words.
This portrait seems to look deep into his soul. No verbal questions or answers are needed. It shows the real “loneliness of power”.
I wish I could just dismiss it and its heart-rending qualities. But I am impressed by the accuracy of the artist’s work. As an admirer of Mr Blair, I am sad, very sad to say this.
Guardian’s Mark Brown: First state-commissioned portrait of Blair shows a PM ‘knackered, tired and fed up’
It was nearing the end of his 10 years in power, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Tony Blair should look so, well, exhausted.
It will also be the image future generations of parliamentarians will look on: the first state-commissioned portrait of the former prime minister.
Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while in office and finally agreed only towards the end of his tenure in June 2007. The portrait unveiled yesterday was commissioned by the Commons advisory committee on art and shows a man who has been through the mill and is now in contemplative mood.
The work, by figurative artist Phil Hale, was painted before the only other official portrait of Blair, by Jonathan Yeo, which was commissioned by Lincoln’s Inn.
Hugo Swire, the Tory chairman of the committee that commissioned the portrait, said it was the most important painting to be added to the parliamentary collection in recent years.
“It’s an extraordinary picture. It shows Blair towards the end and he is looking absolutely exhausted and very contemplative. That’s not the Tony Blair you see today.”
Swire said he approached Hale after being bowled over by the artist’s portrait of the composer Thomas Adès in the National Portrait Gallery.
He said the artist had been allowed to carry out the commission as he wished. “The only discussion was whether he should wear a tie.”
It is understood that Blair’s wife, Cherie, has seen the portrait and approves – although she feels it does not reflect him as he is now, unshackled by the burdens of power.
Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s visual arts critic, said that the portrait certainly had gravitas, but Blair also looked “knackered, tired and fed up”. He added: “Both the portraits of Blair feel more honest than anything he has said about how he was feeling towards the end of his term in power.”
Hale, who painted Blair at Chequers as well as using photographs, said: “I saw my role as a documentarist, and tried – accordingly – to remain as transparent a presence as possible.
“Blair himself was very accommodating. I was lucky that he had more pressing concerns than prettifying himself for a picture. I think we were well-balanced in that sense. He didn’t perform, and I didn’t divine.”
The portrait will hang in Portcullis House and will eventually hang in the Palace of Westminster itself.
[Pic:The portrait of Prime Minister Tony Blair with the artist, Phil Hale]
On Tony Blair: ‘He had more pressing concerns than prettifying himself’
In response to Jonathan Jones’ article in The Guardian – which believe it or not, Mr Hale, is very mild for the Guardian, the artist, Phil Hale posted this comment below:
I actually painted the piece-
Jonathan Jones speculates about Blair manipulating the image. If he was genuinely interested in knowing the history of its development he could easily have contacted me. His assumptions are just incorrect. The most surprising aspect to the commission was the complete absence of any interference from Blair or the House of Commons. I would go so far as to say that Blair was simply not concerned with it; it was an obligation he accepted.
As far as the quality of the painting goes, he would do better to see the original if he is going to comment on it with any authority. It was painted to be seen in the flesh, not reduced to a visual sound-bite for the papers.”
Well, I’d love you to write something for this blog on the commission, Mr Hale. Your own words, thoughts and experience will find a space here, untouched by human or even Guardian interference.
Go here to watch video of the artist Phil Hale being interviewed about this portrait.
Report from AP – read more
‘A portrait of former British Prime minister Tony Blair on show at Portcullis House in Westminster, central London Wednesday, April 23 2008. The portrait by artist Phil Hale, right, captures Blair in the difficult final months of his leadership, when his plunging popularity led him to quit. Curators said the work, commissioned by Parliamentary authorities, depicts an isolated and confrontational figure. It is the only formal portrait painted while Blair was in office. Blair’s portrait will join 20 paintings of British lawmakers that line the walls of Portcullis House, a building opposite London’s Houses of Parliament, which house lawmakers’ offices. (AP Photo / Stefan Rousseau, Pool)’
Telegraph report by Tom Peterkin
Tony Blair portrait unveiled
“A VIRTUOSO PIECE OF ART”
A portrait of Tony Blair painted as his grip on power was fading has been added to the parliamentary art collection.
The painting by Phil Hale is the only formal portrait to be painted of Mr Blair while he was Prime Minister.
Mr Blair sat for the artist at the Prime Minister’s country retreat at Chequers and it shows a greying politician with a sombre expression in the run up to his departure from office in June 2007.
When he sat for the artist, Labour’s longest serving Prime Minister was grappling with the cash for honours crisis and continuing controversy over the Iraq war.
“Blair himself was very accommodating,” Mr Hale said. “I was lucky to see him at Chequers, and lucky that he had more pressing concerns than prettifying himself for a picture. I think we were well-balanced in that sense – he didn’t perform, and I didn’t divine.”
Mr Hale was commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art in the House of Commons and it will hang in Portcullis House, Westminster.
Mr Hale is one of a group of artists, which also includes Justin Mortimer, Brendan Kelly, and James Lloyd, who rose to prominence through the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait show.
“I saw my role as a documentarist, and tried-accordingly-to remain as transparent a presence as possible. Any filtering or shaping would have distorted and devalued the piece. It had a very pure set of demands and limitations,” Mr Hale said.
Mr Hale’s work emphasises the isolated figure and the artist said he “focuses on reconciling the structural integrity of the image, accepting the real power of image with the nature of the paint itself”.
Hugo Swire MP, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Works of Art, said: “This is an authoritative and powerful portrait. It is also a virtuoso piece of painting. It captures Tony Blair during the final months of his premiership, and I believe it is one of the most important additions we have made to our collection of contemporary portraits at the House of Commons in recent years.”
You can let this play while you are reading. Click the arrow on the video and then click “Back to top, to continue reading”.
By now you will know that I am a soft touch for good lyrics. It helps when they are performed by someone like the great, inimitable Cleo Laine. Below she is accompanied by the sensitive and brilliant guitarist John Williams. A great singer, she and her husband John Dankworth, both aged 80, are still pulling in the audiences regularly.
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“Not Waving but Drowning“ is a poem by Stevie Smith published in 1957. Its short, dark story concerns a man whose thrashing – whilst drowning in the sea – is mistaken for waving by people on the shore. It is also clear that this is a metaphor for any situation in which a cry for help is misinterpreted or ignored by friends and family.
Not waving, but drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him
His heart gave way, they said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning).
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
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