The celebrity montage is a time-honoured American artform
Many have criticised Andy Thomas’s painting of Trump drinking with other Republican presidents as “tacky” but such paintings have a long artistic tradition.
In his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Donald Trump suggested his defense secretary might soon leave the White House and claimed climate change would “change back”. But little he said attracted as much interest as a brief glimpse of a picture hanging on a White House wall.
In the picture, Trump is seen kicking back over a Diet Coke with nine Republican predecessors.We now know that the print, The Republican Club, is from a series of paintings by Andy Thomas, an artist from Missouri. The Democratic Club has the same set-up, but with Barack Obama holding court.
Critics were quick to call the paintings kitsch and tacky. But in fact Thomas’s bizarre imagined scenes are examples of a time-honoured American form: celebrity montage art.
Take Edward Sorel’s mural at the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, in which the illustrator pays homage to40 contemporaries including Truman Capote and Edward Albee. He has painted a mural at another New York establishment, The Monkey Bar, which stars icons of the jazz age. Another in Chicago pays tribute to luminaries of that city.
In Hollywood, Thomas Suriya’s mural You Are The Star shows a cinema audience including Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and Judy Garland looking at a notional screen.
Where does America’s fondness for the celebrity montage come from? Debra Force, PBS Antiques Roadshow expert and owner of the Debra Force Fine Art gallery in New York, says depictions of imagined scenarios featuring political figures date back to the 18th century and the Founding Fathers, who she says were often depicted with “God-like features or God-like imagery around them”.
In the following century, she says, especially around the time of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, such images became more common.
Force said: “1876 was a time when [there were] a lot of myths and there was art that was developed that was praising people, putting them in contexts that weren’t ordinarily where they would have been. It carried on into the 1930s, with Grant Wood.”
Like the Time magazine covers Trump obsesses over, for those who appear in them montage paintings can be bizarre status symbols.
“Trump would like [Thomas’s painting] because it’s putting him in a great or what he would presume would be a great context, a great light, comparing him to these other leaders,” Force said.
Not every composite image is quite so flattering. One of Trump’s most high-profile fans, the rapper Kanye West, has taken the phenomenon into the social media age. Famous, a music video and exhibition, shows wax works of 12 controversial figures – including himself and wife Kim Kardashian West, George W Bush, Trump, Taylor Swift and Bill Cosby – sleeping naked on a giant bed.
Unlike Thomas’s complimentary painting, the Trump figure is overweight and somewhat grotesque. West said the piece was neither “in support” of or “anti” any of the people featured. It was, he said, simply “a comment on fame”.