What two iconic paintings reveal about Angela Merkel | Arts | DW | 15.09.2017
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What two iconic paintings reveal about Angela Merkel

There are millions of photos of Germany's chancellor, but the portraits by artists Colin Davidson and Elizabeth Peyton, created for magazine profiles in Time and Vogue, reflect the chancellor's international image.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was named Person of the Year by the news magazine Time in 2015. The year-end issue traditionally profiles the individual (or sometimes group of people) "who has had the greatest influence, for better or worse, on the world and the news each year."

That year not only marked Merkel's 10th anniversary as Germany's chancellor, but was also the one during which she faced two unparalleled crises. 

Read more: Top German election candidates and their role models

After spending months steering endless talks towards a Greek bailout to save the euro, she took the lead in the European migrant crisis, unexpectedly announcing an open-door policy for Syrian asylum-seekers after hordes of them massed behind razor wire fences in Hungary. 

Greek newspaper with Angela Merkel with Nazi arm band (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Panagiotou)

Merkel was portrayed as a Nazi in Greece for her tough economic stance towards the country

The first crisis inspired caricatures of her as an economic Nazi, especially in Athens.

Her image changed on an international level following her bold reaction to the refugee crisis, even though it also turned out to be the most divisive policy of her career within the country. 

The politician whose name had previously inspired an unflattering verb among the country's youth – "merkeln," to be unable to take decisions or give your own opinions – had suddenly turned into Europe's most assertive humanitarian figure. 

Portraying Merkel beyond the bland politician

That aspect influenced artist Colin Davidson when he painted the portrait for the Time cover. "I was very aware that the German chancellor – particularly at that time – divided opinion in Germany and Europe," the award-winning artist told DW.

"We see images of her, where she can appear to be a quite bland and almost cold person, but what I wanted to get across was her humanitarian stance. I wanted to portray the human being behind the politician." 

He was asked to do the portrait without knowing that it would land on the cover of the Person of the Year issue. He says he accepted the prestigious assignment after initially hesitating to do the work, because he always gets his subjects to sit for his portraits and that wasn't possible with the German chancellor. 

Two years later, Davidson still sees this as one of the things he would do differently if he were to paint her again: "What I'd love to do is to have the actual privilege of meeting with her. It's the only painting I've done without a sitting." 

Stately humanism

The painter from Northern Ireland has been focusing on large-scale portraits since 2010. Many of his portrait sitters are major public figures, politicians and stars, including Brad Pitt, Ed Sheeran and Liam Neeson. He was most recently commissioned to paint an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was unveiled in November 2016. 

Asked how he felt about painting the German figure of power, the Belfast-born artist admitted that he did understand the additional responsibility of creating Merkel's portrait, "knowing that it was something that's going to be judged not necessarily for my work, but that would be giving people a view on somebody else. It can't be a self-indulgent exercise," he said.

Read more: Germany's political parties 'lack courage,' says political psychologist

"It can definitely be controversial. I research the person a lot so that I know that I am giving an honest view of that person."

The painter actually upholds this dignified approach for all of his portraits, which are realistic works characterized by bold brushstrokes. It doesn't matter if it's the official portrait of the queen of England, a Japanese tattoo artist or unknown individuals affected by conflict in Northern Ireland, when seen in a series, Davidson's oil paintings all capture the timeless nobility of these people, connecting them to the immemorial art of old masters in an age of disposable images.   

With a knowing smile

Interestingly, Davidson's Merkel painting, the only one he has created in absentia of the subject, is one of his most frontal portraits. She is not looking directly at the viewer, however, but slightly above the camera, appearing to be one step ahead, with a steady gaze towards the future.

 There's definite warmth to Davidson's portrait: The artist chose to highlight the wrinkles around Merkel's eyes that show up when she's smiling, rather than the ones that are left behind when she's terribly exhausted. And even though she is not openly smiling, the left corner of her mouth is slightly turned upwards, underlining one of her natural features. It makes "Mutti" – a nickname Germans use for their chancellor which means Mommy – look like someone who is proud of her work, or her progeny, without wanting to overstate it. 

Among pop idols

In comparison, the portrait recently created by US painter Elizabeth Peyton for a profile of the German chancellor in the August 2017 issue of Vogue magazine offers a much more stylized representation of the politician. 

Even though the piece is titled "How Angela Merkel Became the Most Powerful Woman in the World," in this portrait, the international figure of authority looks like a young girl. A google search for the article provides an alternative headline to the piece, "Angela Merkel: The Chancellor Next Door," which could more fittingly describe Peyton's oil painting.

Since the 1990s, Peyton has focused on small-scale portraits, often of pop stars, but sometimes of historical and present-day European monarchy, including Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Queen Elizabeth II. 

She usually gives her subjects fine traits and very pale skin, turning even a macho rock star like Keith Richards into an androgynous nostalgic dreamer. The fact that the no-nonsense German politician landed on her list of hip subjects, alongside David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Kanye West, adds several coolness points to the chancellor who's never openly thirsted for that status. 

Read more: How politicians play with fashion

The sensitive friend

The first thing that stands out in Peyton's portrait of Angela Merkel are her two fascinatingly blue eyes piercing through large surfaces of white and discrete lines of paint. She is looking directly at the viewer.

Just like in Davidson's painting, Merkel's mouth is tilted and her eyes are smiling, but instead of seeming on top of matters, in Peyton's depiction, the delicate features combined with the direct gaze make you want to smile with "Angela," as the portrait is called. She looks like that person you'd like to know, to confide all of your sorrows over a cup of coffee.

Additionally, the drips flowing down from her eyes give the impression she's had a couple of things to cry about herself. 

A rejuvenated woman

Elizabeth Peyton, who usually works from photographs rather than live sittings, told The New York Times that she had studied several photos of Merkel from the past 30 years. "I noticed how much her face changed in the last two years, especially in the last two months – there was such pain visible. I was really conscious of that," she said.

Still, Peyton didn't dwell on her current figure, depicting the 63-year-old German chancellor as a much younger, thinner woman instead. One photo that visibly inspired Peyton's portrait is featured in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world – from 2007. 

In that decade-old picture, Merkel also stares directly into the camera with intensely blue eyes and a modest smile. Then only two years into her chancellorship, the politician had a few more kilos than in the oil painting.

Humanity 'like a superpower'

"Her face is so determined and tender, there is this hopefulness that leadership could lead you to a better place," Peyton told The New York Times. Like Davidson, Peyton was also more inspired by Merkel's 2015 humanitarian stance rather than her sober daily political style. 

"I was feeling one of her biggest strengths is her humanity; there is just nothing like that in my world that I see right now. It's like a superpower," she added.

If Peyton's idealization of Angela Merkel will probably sound exaggerated to Germans, humanity is certainly something the world's current rulers could use more of.  

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