Forget what world leaders say. If you want to understand what they are really up to, look at the paintings that hang behind them at press conferences and summit meetings, or when they pause with apparent spontaneity along a corridor to answer a reporter’s question. The silent stare of a poised portrait gazing at you over the shoulder of David Cameron or Vladimir Putin is often more loaded and more deliberately orchestrated than you might think. Often these subtle messages are easy enough to decode.
Consider, for example, a photo-op earlier this year involving French President Francois Hollande in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Against the unveiling of two full-body portraits by the Dutch master Rembrandt that had been in private ownership for 130 years (the Louvre acquired the paintings jointly with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), Hollande was transformed into a champion of public culture over the hoarding of art by the rich.
Nor was it difficult to understand why German Chancellor Angela Merkel was compelled in January 2016 to be photographed in front of Girls in the Field, a small painting of two girls in bright flowery dresses. The work, created in 1943 by 8-year-old Nelly Toll in a Jewish ghetto in Poland, was on display as part of the largest exhibition of Holocaust art outside Israel.