Are We Europe
Are We Europe
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Politics in the smartphone age

As photography replaced painting, the way we recorded key moments in international politics changed forever. But, in turning our backs on painting as a method of documentation, we may have sacrificed meaning and memorability.

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Photo by JD Hancock

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Just months ago, the internet went mad over a handshake. Actually, more than one. First came the battle of hands between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron at the NATO summit, which was picked apart, analyzed, and zoomed in on by TV commentators, the Twitterati, and amateur pundits across the spectrum. Trump’s knuckles turned white: Macron wouldn’t let go of his hand. Was it payback for the first handshake? What did it all mean?! This was all followed in short order by handshake number two, between - once again - Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, on the sidelines of the G20, which was quickly subjected to the same level of dissection. We’re all semioticians now, Umberto Eco would surely be happy to know.

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The amount of information provided by one painting is rather remarkable compared to the snapshots of politicians nowadays.

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State leaders carefully construct the image they want to portray. Every public faux pas has the potential to cause a lot of damage, because it will almost certainly be captured by a photographer, or a random phone, and spread across the world. Some politicians are more aware of this than others, and as Macron seemed to indicate to the press later, the “handshake incident,” was a piece of carefully choreographed political theatre, at least on his part.

But how different was the portrayal of international relations before the invention of photography and video? If you compare paintings of state-representatives with similar photos from politics today, you can get a better sense of how the public perceived politics in the pre-photography era. Gaze long enough, and maybe a sense of nostalgia might even jump out from the hues of oil on the canvas. The amount of information provided by one painting is rather remarkable compared to the snapshots of politicians nowadays.

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Will a photograph of the Treaty of Maastricht in a hundred years time attract the same broad audience as the painting by Gerard ter Borch?

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A painting of an international relations setting often tells us a story. It’s a story about the occasion, the painter and the commissioner all at the same time. The composition, the people, the objects and the colours have a significance. A photo shows reality as it is; a painting shows reality as interpreted by a painter and the person who paid for it.

1. Treaty signing

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Compare the painting of the Ratification of the Treaty of Münster by Gerard ter Borch (1617 - 1681) with the photograph of the signing of Treaty of Maastricht in 1993: the authority and function of the photographer seem more limited than the prominent position occupied by Gerard ter Borch and the way he adapts the scene. The photographer clearly didn't enjoy the same intimacy as the painter.

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We mostly see the back of the heads of balding men in grey suits sitting on roundtables. Also, in a certain way, Ter Borch was able to change history to its own imagination due to his adjustments mentioned above. The painting of Gerard ter Borch is exposed in the National Gallery in London. It is much more than a portrayal of an event in European history: it is art, special and valuable because there exists only one copy, admired by a much broader public than only European history aficionados.

2. French ambassadors

There is a lot more going on from a stylistic point of view in the painting of Hans Holbein (1497-1543) when compared to the photo of the current French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann. The painting The Ambassadors (1533) is rather impressive for its symbolism it employs to refer to religious strifes in Europe, as well as human mortality.

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The photo of Ambassador Sylvie Bermann looks rather dull in comparison. Or does this portrait tells us more than is meeting the eye?

  Sylvie Bermann

Sylvie Bermann

What if it symbolizes a red flag for halting Brexit? Or secret support for Labour? And wait, is that a nude by Rodin in background? These two images are gendered in a contrasting way as well, and taken together, show how diplomacy has progressed.

3. When people walk out of frame

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This unfinished painting is an attempt by Benjamin West to portray the English and American delegation at the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. The treaty confirmed British recognition of American independence and ended the American Revolutionary War. (If you ever stroll down rue Jacob in Paris, you can see a plaque on the outside of No. 53, the building where the treaty was signed).

Final thoughts

Comparing paintings and photographs of international relations makes me wonder if photography has changed the way we commemorate contemporary European history. Will a photograph of the Treaty of Maastricht in a hundred years time attract the same broad audience as the painting of Gerard ter Borch? Will it be as memorable?

A painting does not offer the same realistic portrayal of politics as photography does, but it doesn’t need to. A photograph is realistic, but this is also its pitfall, because photographing - the choice for a photo for publication and photoshop in a more extreme way - are means to frame and translate reality. A photo never tells the whole story. A painting, on the other hand, conveys a deeper truth about a moment in history. A truth that photography may simply be unable to convey. 

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  Current location:   Utrecht, The Netherlands

Current location: 
Utrecht, The Netherlands