More to nude Harper than meets the eye

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALI­SON GILL­MOR

WIT IS: Em­peror Haute Cou­ture, a paint­ing by Kingston, Ont.-based artist Mar­garet Suther­land that de­picts a re­clin­ing nude on a chaise longue. What’s con­tro­ver­sial — and a lit­tle queasy-mak­ing — is that the buck­naked sub­ject hap­pens to be Stephen Harper, the prime min­is­ter of Canada.

WHAT IT MEANS: Suther­land cites as in­flu­ences Edouard Manet’s Olympia, which raised a ruckus in the 1860s be­cause of the model’s frank stare, and The Em­peror’s New Clothes, Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen’s moral fa­ble about power, syco­phancy and truth.

Suther­land em­ploys at­ten­tion-get­ting ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Af­ter all, the in­tensely pri­vate Harper is one of the least likely naked peo­ple you could ever come across. He’s the kind of guy who looks un­com­fort­able when he takes off his neck­tie. Back in 2006, he got caught out on world leader “ca­sual day” when meet­ing with Vi­cente Fox and Ge­orge W. Bush.

But Suther­land’s satir­i­cal jux­ta­po­si­tion of straight style with cuckoo con­tent would prob­a­bly work bet­ter if the vis­ual re­al­ism were more com­pelling. Here the anatomy is slightly wonky. The left leg is a bit off. The right hand, which should be ref­er­enc­ing calm Re­nais­sance poise, looks kind of dead. And the head seems to have been brought in from an­other paint­ing and dropped onto Harper’s body. (Thank­fully, this vis­ual mis­step re­as­sures us that he didn’t pose for the paint­ing. Whew.)

Suther­land has stated that the paint­ing is a re­minder that “all the mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment have bod­ies,” that what seems like ab­stract power can al­ways be traced back to our com­mon and fal­li­ble hu­man­ity.

And we do seem re­sis­tant to this mes­sage: Most news pho­tos of the im- age man­age to dis­creetly avoid what one com­men­ta­tor has called the PM’s “Tim­bits” (in ref­er­ence to the nearby Tim Hor­tons cof­fee cup).

WHY IT MAT­TERS: What’s im­por­tant here isn’t so much the work it­self, which is ba­si­cally the vis­ual-art equiv­a­lent of a nov­elty song, but the way it has been han­dled.

In South Africa, a paint­ing of Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma with ex­posed gen­i­tals re­cently pro­voked an an­gry con­tro­versy that in­volved armed guards, van­dal­ism, protests, pro­posed me­dia boy­cotts and threat­ened law­suits.

In Canada, we have mild jokes, some gen­tle tut-tut­ting, and an anony­mous buyer who snagged the paint­ing for $5,000. Mostly there is a po­lite Canuck con­sen­sus on two things: 1) The artist has the right to ex­press her­self; and 2) no­body — nei­ther right-wing, left­wing, nor mid­dle-of-the-road — re­ally wants to see a nude Stephen Harper.


Mag­gie Suther­land sits in front of her paint­ing of Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper.

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