The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II

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Annie Leibovitz

It’s been said that prostitution is the oldest profession, and espionage the second oldest. Public relations might well be the third, and certainly for as long as we have had formal rulers, their artistic depiction has played an important role in creating a sense of their status amongst the public. This has particularly been the case in Britain, where paintings of Kings and Queens have always tended to be tightly controlled, the right to produce such images sometimes licensed to a single court appointed artist and subject to a high degree of vetting. In other words the public relations gauntlet which must be negotiated in the process of photographing the political rulers of the present is nothing new, nor are image makers willing to do exactly as they are bid by these figures and their attendants.

Historically royal paintings were potently political and highly constructed, laden with symbolism which was designed to carefully hint at the character and role of the Monarch depicted. Carefully choosen imagery helped to broadcast a sense of the times in which that person lived, and their role as leader of the nation within those times, whether as warrior, peacemaker, or something else entirely. Few monarchs took such care with their depiction as Elizabeth I who was painted with remarkable frequency during her life and reign. Paintings of Elizabeth overflow with allegorical objects and characters, all intended to broadcast a certain vision of her in the minds of those who stood before these images. In early examples items like pearls and moons alluded to her virginity and purity, she sometimes held a book to suggest studiousness and religiosity, while a red rose would symbolise her loyalty to the house of Tudor.

Later paintings increasingly drew parallels between Elizabeth and classical mythology, part of the process of raising her to an almost god like status. They also emphaisised her military leanings, and in some her dress is exaggerated in a way which starts to suggest plate armour, an important allusion for a female Monarch ruling in a time of instability and the lingering threat of invasion from Catholic Europe. Perhaps most fascinatingly the emphasis on symbolism in these paintings went so far as to completely compromise their realism. Despite renaissance innovations in the use of light and shade to create more dramatic and realistic depictions of shape, techniques exemplified by her father’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth reputedly disdained shadows in her portraits, viewing them as contradicting the image of purity and youth she had so carefully cultivated. The result of this Royal intervention into aesthetics was a distinctive style of court portraiture which remained remarkably flat in contrast to the ever greater verisimilitude of court paintings in other parts of Europe. Elizabeth was obsessed in short with the power of symbolism and allegory, the enormous power of applying them properly, and the equally grave damage they could cause when they were not properly prescribed.

This genre of portraiture persists to some extent today albeit in photographic form, with three portraits recently ‘released’ by Kensington Palace to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Taken by court appointed celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz, these are perhaps not such careful cultivations of subject and symbolism as their Elizabethan forebears, but they still might be read for similar meanings and insight. I feel it is irresistible to read them for answers to the essential question of the role of a taxpayer funded hereditary monarch is in a 21st century democracy, not least a democracy struggling to pay for essential services like disability benefits and healthcare, and a society beholden to neoliberial ideas about work and earning. In such a society the images of the inherited wealth and power which the current Queen’s Tudor namesake so consistently broadcast to her subjects are hardly welcome ones. Perhaps reflecting that we don’t find Elizabeth II depicted in regal dress as she was the last time she found herself in front of Leibovitz’s lens, a session which took place back at the very start of the global economic recession).

Instead we see a monarch taking on a much more normal guise in a series of almost informal settings, surrounded variously by grandchildren, with her daughter, and her dogs. The subtext one feels they’ve aimed for, as if it needed spelling out, is that the monarch isn’t the all-powerful god figure or magisterial head of state she might once have been presented to us as. Instead she is a sort of fuzzy and benign babysitter, responsible for overlooking her brood of grandchildren, standing in here perhaps for the succession of short timer politicians who periodically shuffle into serving as her prime minister for a few years (she’s seen 12 of them to date) before presumably shuffling off again to a nice job as a corporate advisor. It’s inevitably tempting to connect specific prime ministers to particular children in this group portrait, in which case the girl to the left of the Queen clutching a handbag almost as large as she is would undoubtedly be the late Margaret Thatcher. I’d peg current PM David Cameron to the small boy in shorts on the right who looks on the verge of tears and like he just wants the whole thing to be over.

This attempt to normalise the Queen falls flat mostly because of the glaring opulence of the surroundings. ‘I didn’t realise they had so much Ikea furniture’ quipped one person in my Twitter feed. However any sense of this as a naturalistic family grouping is also shattered by the awful crapness of the photograph, in particular the way the subjects are so over lit and over-processed that they appear to leap off the background behind them. The lack of relationship between sitters and their surroundings callsto mind a photograph of Judge Dredd as a baby which appears in the original rather fascist 1995 movie adaptation. In-plot forensic examination of this photograph later reveals is a composite fake constructed to hide the grim reality of a child secretly reared in a government lab as part of a genetic experiment. With the exception of the baby on the Queen’s lap, the children look as if they have been photographed in isolation and inserted like Judge Dredd on to a backdrop to which they bear no spatial (or emotional) relationship. The more I look at this image the less sure I feel that it’s a single exposure, which needn’t matter (since, lest we forget, this is not journalism) except in the sense that it reveals the extent of utter construction that still takes place in the making of a monarch’s state portrait, and of course, the complicity of the one who makes it. For all that’s undoubtedly changed since the time of the Tudors, it would seem that the shadows (or the lack thereof) still have it.

4 thoughts on “The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II

  1. There was a stain on my laptop screen, and when I opened this page, it sat so perfectly over baby Thatcher’s mouth that it looked like she had only just consumed, messily, a cone of chocolate ice cream. Would have been a far better photograph had that actually been the case.

  2. It’s entirely possible that the children were photographed in isolation and placed into the frame. That’s a thing Annie does, or at any rate has done pretty extensively. Maybe she’s over it.

    I quite like the picture, honestly. It’s very very Annie, though.

  3. Now you come to mention it, they do look as if they’ve been dropped in in post – I began by liking this photograph and now, meh. But then, it’s rare that a posed photographic portrait can hold lasting attention.

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