The Political Portrait, edited by Luciano Cheles and Alessandro Giacone

Darren Lilleker enjoys a useful study of how leaders have tried to shape their public images

January 21, 2021
Photograph taken of posters of Mao and quotations along the Nanking Road during the Cultural Revolution in 1967, Shanghai, China
Source: Alamy
Poster of Mao and quotations in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution in 1967

A US Air Force helicopter descends majestically on to the lawn of the White House, President Trump emerges, strides confidently down the steps, across the green and ascends the stairs to the balcony. He removes his face mask, adopts a resolute expression and salutes the helicopter, watching it glide up into the evening sky.

This 80-second video, uploaded on 6 October 2020, ostensibly depicts Trump recovered from Covid-19 taking back the reins of power. But embedded within it are all the symbols of the power and status of the US president: he is being flown to the White House; the guard of honour welcomes him home; he strides up the steps with authority and the salute of the commander-in-chief; and then he gazes into the sky, as if looking into the future. The video provided, in other words, all the symbols of presidentialism required a month before election day. This was a staged production, but images of leaders are ubiquitous across traditional and social media and the significance of the symbolism embedded in the visual is as powerful now as it was centuries ago.

Luciano Cheles and Alessandro Giacone’s collection focuses largely on how leaders are officially portrayed, taking a century-long historical perspective from the early 20th century. The case studies offer snapshots from across a period that saw the ancient regime of emperors collapse, the subsequent rise of democratic, pseudo-democratic and authoritarian regimes and later the fall of the last European dictators as well as the Soviet Union. The book reveals the parallels between the portraits of tsars, emperors and kings, which reflected their exalted status and claim to a divine right to rule, and the omnipresent images of Mao in China and the North Korean Kim dynasty.

The use of the symbolism and iconography of power, and the individual’s position in a grand heroic nationalist narrative, pervades the portraiture of such leaders. While some dictators portrayed themselves more modestly, positioning themselves as at one with the masses, authoritarian leaders tend to demonstrate their inner strength, national or religious devotion and to forge links to national icons in their portraits. The democratically elected leaders who supplanted European dictators, mainly represented here by case studies of Germany and Italy, by contrast, adopted serious and modest demeanours, blending ordinariness with dynamism while expressing minimal concern about their physical appearance.

Nations whose histories do not bear the stain of fascism or communism are less constrained in their portraiture. UK and US leaders are found to project an image to match their context: Margaret Thatcher as Iron lady and Ronald Reagan as patriotic cowboy facing down the Soviet enemy, for example. However, the contributors to this volume also note a more widespread return to images that invoke features of the cult of personality characteristic of the age of the dictators. Silvio Berlusconi ushered in a “celebrification” of Italian politics, which led to greater personalisation and symbolism. The power of the individual and the nation has been reappropriated as a feature of portraits of a range of candidates for election in Italy and beyond.

The book thus demonstrates how leaders are branded over time. The case studies offer insights into how the history and context of nations can act as a constraint on overtly flamboyant portrayals of the power of the individual. However, when unconstrained by history, leaders enjoy portraying themselves as heirs to the heroes of their nation, the founders or great warriors, as well as strategically deploying iconography that makes a semiotic link to a glorious past that their leadership can be imagined as bringing back. How subtly or overtly such symbolism is used depends on the individual, their politics and the national context, all of which shape the construction of the image.

The Political Portrait also charts significant changes in the portrayals of leaders. During the earlier phases of the period covered, leaders were the subjects of works of art, and reproductions were often available for the homes of their subjects. More recently, they appear in campaign posters that have only short-term prominence. The digital age also sees leaders using a wide range of media, as per the Trump video, yet anyone with a minimal degree of computer literacy can produce an image of the leader that sometimes has more impact and resonance than their official propaganda.

While the book offers some hints about the challenges of producing portraits of leaders, its largely historical focus means that the unofficial image is given less attention. There is minimal reference, for example, to the well-documented lampooning of US presidents by cartoonists. Given that the current age is one where unflattering images can become fodder for newspaper front pages and viral memes, this is a significant omission. Political leaders remain focused on attempting to control their public image; however, the fact that this is no longer possible gives a sense of redundancy to discussions of the impact of official portraiture. Furthermore, while some contributors discuss the portraiture of modern Italian leaders, there is no engagement with contemporary debates on populism. Populists tend to hark back to periods of greatness within a nation’s history, while more extreme right-wingers even attempt to rehabilitate fascist leaders and reappropriate their iconography. A focus on a wider range of leaders, including leaders of social movements, would have helped us understand how they too invoke the iconography of the emperor or dictator and how symbols of power once consigned to history are being reimagined for the current age.

As a historical study of official portraits, encompassing a wide range of nations and regimes, this is a valuable addition to the literature on visual political communication. By reading across the case studies one can build a rich picture of how portraits of leaders have evolved over time, reacting to changing contexts while retaining specific national symbols and icons that connote a particular style of leadership. The study is further useful as a springboard for future research designed to explore the similarities and differences both within nations and across types of regime. The inclusion of close to 200 illustrations adds colour and provides useful aids for discussing the semiotics of leadership (and of specific leaders) with students. So the collection has significant value, although readers will need to think more carefully about the new context of the early 21st century where the symbolism of nationalism is no longer confined to the past, and where there are now significant challenges for leaders who seek to control their image.

Darren Lilleker is professor of political communication at Bournemouth University.


 The Political Portrait: Leadership, Image and Power
Edited by Luciano Cheles and Alessandro Giacone
Routledge, 368pp, £120.00
ISBN 9781138054233
Published 21 July 2020


The authors

Luciano Cheles, a member of the Laboratoire Universitaire Histoire Cultures Italie Europe at the Grenoble Alpes University, was born in Cairo to Italian parents and spent his early years in Rome and Milan. He studied modern languages at the University of Reading and art history at the University of Essex and then taught at the University of Lancaster for 20 years before leaving the UK in 2000 to take up the chair in Italian studies at the University of Poitiers, France. His research, he says, “has always focused on the use of images for propaganda purposes and I have organised several exhibitions on this topic in Britain and France”. His earlier co-edited books include The Far Right in Western and Eastern Europe (1995) and The Art of Persuasion (2001).

Alessandro Giacone, associate professor of political science at the University of Bologna, was born in Boston, grew up in Italy and moved to France in 1990, where he studied in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, Sciences Po and the Sorbonne. In 2013, he and Cheles joined forces with colleagues to organise a conference on the political portrait in France and Italy, leading to a 2017 book titled Il ritratto e il potere (“The portrait and power”). Their new book greatly expands the geographical scope of their analysis.

Asked about how their work can help us understand today’s politics, Cheles argues that the portraits they examine “are always the result of precise choices made by propagandists and spin doctors, and are meant to influence us subliminally. The study of portraits serves to debunk the hidden aims and messages of political leaders.”

“The political portrait has always played an important role in politics,” adds Giacone, “but nowadays communication has become even more important...Our book shows there is (almost) always a construction beneath a political image. By ‘deconstructing’ this phenomenon, we hope the reader will better understand the logics of power.”

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Picture-perfect presidents

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