Martin Gayford looks at the Shepard Fairey portrait of soon-to-be President Obama–which was just acquired by the National Portrait Gallery–and sees something truly iconic:
The 38-year-old street artist derived the image — made famous in presidential campaign posters — partly from the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition of icon painting. With its simple dark contours on a background of earthly red and blue, the stenciled portrait proves the lasting power of a certain kind of ancient, static imagery — even in our high-tech, digital age.
Whatever you think of the “Hope” portrait as a work of art, it’s powerful and highly effective. Fairey has crafted an image seeded with multifarious cultural references that you immediately pick up, perhaps subliminally.
(More on Obama and icons after the Jump.)
Among them are revolutionary posters, particularly Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in his beret with the star. “Hope” also recalls Andy Warhol’s silkscreen pictures. There’s even a hint of the noble presidential heads carved on Mount Rushmore.
The first two of those strands hark back to the visual language of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In that tradition, icons are a means of contacting the divine. Theologically speaking, you don’t worship the icon, you worship the holy presence through the icon. Frequently, to believers and non- believers alike, icons have remarkable presence — a presence drawn partly from their simplicity, concentration and repetitive familiarity.
Russian avant-garde artists such as Kazimir Malevich, the pioneer of boldly simple abstraction, derived their boldness and power from the icon, as did Soviet propaganda. Later Chinese and Cuban posters followed that example.
Nor is it fanciful to detect a hint of iconic saints in the images of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley created by Warhol. Born Andrew Warhola, he came from a family of Rusyn, or Ruthenian, immigrants to the U.S. They were Eastern Europeans who worshiped in the Byzantine tradition, so Warhol grew up looking at icons.