Casting a Long Shadow Over Art by Dana Lise Shavin

(This article appeared first in The Chattanooga Free Press, where Dana Shavin is a columnist.)

I love that this year’s Gathering theme is about the intersections of personal lives with world events. Of course all of our lives intersect with world events, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, from books, mentors, friends, other writers, and not least of all The Gathering, it’s that any story that doesn’t take into consideration the larger world around it is arguably just a vignette.

On this note, this past week I read with interest an article about Nelson Shanks, the renowned portrait painter whose subjects have included the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Luciano Pavarotti, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and a group portrait of the four female Supreme Court justices.

clinton portraitIt’s the Clinton portrait I was reading about. Apparently Shanks’s portrait of Clinton, which was commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery in 2001, includes a reference to White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress. According to Shanks, that’s what the “shadow” is beneath the fireplace mantle.

Asked about the inclusion of the dress in the painting, Shanks told PEOPLE magazine, “I had to do something to break up that line,” referring to what we are to presume would otherwise be empty space. He went on to say that it was also intended as a metaphor for “the shadow the affair cast over the presidency.” And that the inclusion of the blue dress in shadow is “…reflective of history and an anecdote that history should respect and know about at the same time.”

Clinton’s dalliance with Lewinsky was not his finest moment in the White House, to be sure. But what bugged me about this story was the artist’s subterfuge, his duplicity, the sneaky way he cast his own shadow over the former president in the name of art and history. (He also left out Clinton’s wedding ring). Certainly it can be argued that one role of an artist is to offer commentary on current events; but the role of an artist selected by the president as his official portrait painter, and then commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery to carry out the president’s wish, is, I would argue, representation without embellishment or elaboration. One wonders what Shanks might have snuck into Reagan’s portrait (allusions to the Iran-Contra affair?) Or Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s (the shadowy outline of Camilla Parker Bowles? Murky references to bulimia?).

For many years, my husband and I have made our living as artists. It is a physically challenging, financially unpredictable job but there are a great many perks, one of which is the opportunity to meet other artists whose art we admire, and sometimes to trade work. My husband and I built much of our art collection this way; because we know the people behind so much of what we’ve collected, it’s as if we have decorated our home with friends.

About eight years ago, we met an artist in Dallas whose work we liked, and we offered to trade. We were thrilled when he said yes. We selected a painting of a cityscape, and he selected two of my husband’s large photographs. We shook hands enthusiastically. As we turned to leave his booth, cityscape in hand, the artist leaned in and said proudly, “There’s a swastika in the under painting.”

My husband and I were speechless. The artist went on to say that he put swastikas in all of his under paintings, and that he was particularly delighted when an unsuspecting older Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, purchased one. Need I say that after we told him I was Jewish we returned the cityscape?

That experience in Dallas is what I thought about when I saw the story about Shanks and his devious inclusion of the blue dress in the commissioned portrait of Clinton. Like our Dallas artist’s covert swastikas, Shanks’s covert dress shadow strikes me as less a lesson in history (as Shanks would have us call it) and more a lesson in cowardice: a man wielding an impotent knife the only way he knows how: secretly, weakly, and ineffectually. The wounding was intended for Clinton. But as an artist—and a human being—who values integrity, I feel a kind of referred pain.

Dana Lise Shavin’s book The Body Tourist was published by Little Feather Books last November. She is a past panelist and workshop presenter at The Gathering.

  • I agree. Commentary belongs in many places. That painting was not one of them.