The Art Newspaper ponders an unsettling trend today when it questions why three prominent contemporary painters have chosen to feature the body of the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in their work. The Chinese-born artist Yan Pei-Ming's painting, Gaddafi’s Corpse – October 20th 2011, was shown at the David Zwirner gallery in New York earlier this year as part of Ming's 'Black Painting' exhibition. Meanwhile, British painter Jenny Saville is working on a painting of the dictator's body, and Italian artist Luca del Baldo plans to show his Gaddafi work, Ubu Roi, Gaddafi’s Head, at Centro Congressi Medioevo in Como this December.
Of course, paintings of famous bodies from news footage aren't new. Del Baldo himself has painted Mussolini and John F Kennedy's corpses, while Gerhard Richter's series on the Baader Meinhof gang includes paintings of the activists after death.
However, as the Art Newspaper discovers, each artist offers a slightly different account for their focus on the Libyan leader. Del Baldo told the paper that the “image of a dead dictator taken from the media is more powerful, and more shocking, than, say, Damien Hirst’s shark”. Saville, meanwhile, was not shocked by the corpse, but its attendants. “What I found most disturbing about the [press] images was not Gaddafi’s body, or the light, but the telephones. [There was] this incredible body lying out in this cold storage unit with hundreds of hands holding telephones.”
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Ming argues that his portrait restores some of Gaddafi's lost stature. He told the New York arts paper Brooklyn Rail that the images he had worked from contained extraneous objects and additional figures, which Ming excised, in part to restore the dictator's self-respect. “He was lying on a mattress and there were things strewn on the ground around him. I gave him back human dignity in a way. He’s alone with his death. Alone in his humanity. And he’s a victim of his own victims.”
Whether Muammar deserved such a restoration is another matter. You can read Ming's interview here, and see the full Art Newspaper piece here, including all the images discussed. Our book Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State offers a very insteresting into the relationship between art, propaganda and dictatorship.