With some artists painting the president as biblical hero and others depicting him in ironic terms, one thing is clear. There`s no one with star power like Vladimir Putin.
This weekend, millions of Russians will elect their next president. Opinion polls universally predict that the vast majority will cast ballots for incumbent president Vladimir Putin. Yet a number of Moscow artists have already voted for Putin in a different way -- with their paintbrushes.
One such artist is Irina Makhnyova, whose portrait of Putin is currently on display at the House of the Government of the Russian Federation, better known as the White House. Putin is casually dressed in Makhnyova`s portrait, with a warm, almost Gandhi-like smile on his face. His eyes are directed at a phantasmagoric wooden ship, which appears to be floating in the air between his outstretched hands.
"If he will have love, if he will genuinely believe in the potential of this country, he will make the ship real," Makhnyova said in a recent interview.
Makhnyova explained that the ship is a reference to the biblical story of Noah`s ark. According to Makhnyova, who is known for the rich symbolism of her paintings, Noah was an ordinary man whom God chose for the difficult task of saving the world. Likewise, Putin was initially reluctant to become president, but now faces the daunting challenge of rescuing Russia.
Despite her association of Putin with a biblical hero, Makhnyova denied that the portrait glorifies the president. "This is not an idealization," she stated. "If it were an idealization, it would show him as he would ideally want to be presented."
Instead, she asserted, "It shows what is truly essential about this person."
Makhnyova`s portrait is part of an ongoing project that she started together with painter Alexander Osipov called "The History of Russia in Faces." The ultimate goal of the project is to establish a Russian national portrait gallery with sculptures and paintings of Russia`s most important historical figures. At the White House, where the project is having its first exhibition, visitors can see illustrious Russians such as Peter the Great and General Mikhail Kutuzov, who warded off Napoleon in the War of 1812. A few contemporary figures have crept into the exhibition as well, including sculptor Zurab Tsereteli and first lady Lyudmila Putin.
Osipov contributed the painting of Lyudmila Putin, which shows the first lady clad in a glamorous evening gown that evokes the atmosphere of the 1920s. A stone column can be seen in the background.
In justifying his presentation of the first lady, Osipov said that Lyudmila Putin represents an ancient archetype with timeless appeal -- that of the ordinary woman who is thrust into greatness.
"The wife of the president is a woman outside of time," declared the painter.
Irina Makhnyova`s portrait compares President Putin to a biblical hero.
Not all Moscow artists share the same reverent attitude toward the Russian president. Artist Dmitry Vrubel and his wife, Viktoria Timofeyeva, take a more lighthearted approach. In 2002, they collaborated on a calendar titled "The 12 Moods of the President," which featured 12 different larger-than-life portraits of Putin. Each portrait presented a different facial expression -- happy, sad, angry, worried and so on. Other works by Vrubel and Timofeyeva include a painting called "The Ideal Lover," featuring Putin in a kimono, and "Putin and the Black Square," which juxtaposes the president with the iconic symbol of Russian avant-garde painting, Kazimir Malevich`s "Black Square."
Vrubel and Timofeyeva work within the Pop Art tradition established by U.S. artists such as Andy Warhol, but they bring a uniquely Russian perspective to the genre. In a recent interview, Vrubel explained why Vladimir Putin is inescapable in Russian Pop Art.
"The laws of the genre require us to use popular figures, such as Marilyn Monroe in the works of Andy Warhol," he said. "In Russia, the most popular figures -- not just now, but in the 19th century, if you look at Dostoevsky and Gogol -- these figures are government officials."
As evidence, Vrubel pointed out that the Russian mass media are saturated with images of Putin. He argued that such images, which have become especially prevalent during the build-up to the presidential election, prove that Putin is the biggest celebrity in Russia today. In fact, said Vrubel, Putin`s star power is so immense that even his challengers, such as Irina Khakamada, are constantly talking about him.
"This is unbelievable," he said. "It`s as if Pepsi started running ads for Coca Cola."
The national obsession with Putin has extended well beyond the news media. A recent pop song, "I Want a Man Like Putin," extolled the sex appeal of the Russian president. Meanwhile, manufacturers have created a variety of Putin paraphernalia, from Putin tapestries made by a Kostroma textile mill to a 1.5-kilogram chocolate Putin by the high-end confectioner Konfael.
"The wife of the president is a woman outside of time," said painter Alexander Osipov of Lyudmila Putina.
And of course, one can buy pictures of the Russian president. For example, the Moskva bookstore on Tverskaya Ulitsa sells a number of Putin posters, including one by Nikas Safronov, an artist who has also painted stars such as Jack Nicholson and Russian singer Alla Pugachyova. According to Natalya Cheprova, public relations manager for the store, the Putin posters are usually purchased by government officials and the directors of large enterprises.
Some in the media have speculated that a new cult of personality is developing around Putin. But Sergei Buiskov, who sells paintings in an underground passage near the Central House of Artists, might disagree. His portrait-making studio offers 27 different versions of Vladimir Putin -- but in his opinion, the Putin-selling business has slowed down in recent years.
"In the beginning I sold more, in 2001," Buiskov said.
Perhaps customers have heeded the warnings of Putin himself. The president has taken steps to put the brakes on his own glorification by toadying government officials. During last December`s televised call-in show on Channel One, a questioner asked Putin how he felt about bureaucrats placing his portrait in their offices.
"I don`t see anything wrong with it," said the president. "But everything should be done in a moderate degree -- when moderation is lost, that is distressing."
Nonetheless, Putin is not immune to the power of his own portrait, according to Igor Babailov, a New York-based artist who has painted many world leaders. Babailov was present when Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien presented Putin with a surprise gift -- a portrait, painted by Babailov. Putin was overcome with emotion, according to Babailov, and took the opportunity to bond with Chretien.
"Putin gave him a huge bear hug," Babailov said. "It was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise."