Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nude PM portrait brings national media attention to library

“Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head.”

A week ago, it was only the locals who were talking about Margaret Sutherland’s nude portrait of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, which is how I heard about it. By the week-end, Googling ‘Harper painting Kingston library’ produced ten-plus pages where every single result was about the controversy. On my lunch break today, I headed over to 130 Johnson Street to see the arguably iconic portrait in person.

The children’s librarian pointed me to the doorway where two viewers lingered hesitantly before heading in to see Stephen Harper reclining on a chaise lounge, without a stitch of clothing. I overheard one visitor say, “You know what’s great about showing controversial work? It gets people in to see the show.” A quick head count of fifteen people on a sunny Tuesday at lunchtime suggests that this is indeed true.

In the same way that Charles Pachter’s paintings of the Queen on a moose elicited hostile reactions 40 years ago, Sutherland’s portrait has provoked extreme feedback, ranging from hilarity to disgust. My husband and I debated when the last time was that a painting caused as much commotion in the Canadian media as Sutherland’s Emperor Haute Couture (2011). His suggestion was the National Gallery of Canada’s 1989 acquisition of Voice of Fire (1967) by American artist, Barnett Newman. In contrast to that scandal, it’s exciting that the present discussion has stemmed from a female Canadian artist, while also highlighting the role of libraries beyond collections of books.

Satirical artistic representations of politicians have a long history with caricatures, so what is it about this painting that is so startling? Is it its realism and his sheer nudity? Harper’s sex organs may be visible, but it’s not a sexualized painting. It brings to mind a comment by performance artist Stuart Ringholt in relation to his recent tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia where guide and guests were required to be naked: “We are sexualized with our clothes on—with them off, we are not” (1).  Sutherland’s portrait is hardly titillating, with Harper’s patchy chest hair and slight paunch. The background composed of figures in neutral business suits creates a drab setting that runs counter to idealism. It’s telling that the portrait is covered in a different fashion than Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), a painting where female genitalia is the focus. It was screened for a private peepshow, whereas Sutherland’s portrait is draped during children’s programming. Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head: after centuries of women being painted nude by men, Sutherland disrupts the gaze that has been in the male domain for so long. Harper meets the viewer’s gaze, but curiously, his expression seems apathetic and less forceful than the gaze of the dog resting by his feet.

Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s new communications officer, tweeted disdain for the portrait, noting that Harper is a cat person (2). Since this is common public knowledge, Sutherland’s choice of dog seems purposeful. While symbolism isn’t reigning supreme these days, the fact that the artist has acknowledged Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) as a source of inspiration gives the green light to consider symbols in historical works like Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia (1514). In these works, the dog symbolizes fidelity, which is fitting considering that Sutherland cites among her frustrations with Harper cuts to arts funding, census-taking procedures, and prison closures.

The Tim Hortons cup passed to Harper on a china plate by the sole female in the background is also reportedly symbolic (representing the common folk of Canada). It also reinforces the Canadian-ness of the painting: Tim Hortons is so integral to our national identity that its Olympic advertising is unforgettable but American locations feel the need to specify that it is a coffee and bake shop. As product placement, it also serves as a reminder of political branding and last year's public outcry that followed the discreet switch in federal government communications from ‘the Government of Canada’ to ‘the Harper Government’. All seriousness aside, I had to laugh when I looked down at the Tim Hortons drink I picked up spontaneously on my way back to work and realized the probable cause of my detour.

The Kingston Arts Council's Juried Art Salon, of which the painting is part, runs until May 30. If you are in the area, be sure to cast your vote for best in show.

Works referenced:



(1)  As cited by Mark Whittaker, “New Tour at Museum Reveals All,” The New York Times, May 1, 2012.

(2) Andrew MacDougall @PMO_MacDougall  On the Sutherland painting: we're not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person. [Twitter post]. May 18, 2012.


  1. Hello Heather - Thanks for providing a thorough context for the Sutherland painting and congrats to Margaret for providing current National attention to peeves and pets

    Kelly McCray

  2. Hi Kelly,

    Thanks for your comment, and great pun on pet peeves!