At the Westminster’s Day of Majesty, attended by a large audience made up of well-known and respected crowd, the portrait was finally revealed. As the curtains were drawn, an aged, tired subject slumped wearily in his arm chair. His arms gripping the armrest, as if strengthless to support himself. His clothes crumpled, almost fading into the dreary brown background, as a heavy countenance hung on his face. Far from the image of the “heroic, warrior statesman” that Churchill had in mind, Sutherland had painted an image of Churchill as he saw his subject - worn out, the weight of his life lived evident in his demeanour.
It was no surprise that the painting was ordered to be destroyed some months after his birthday celebration. In the multiple sittings Churchill had with Sutherland, he was never given any previews of the workings nor markings done by the artist so he could not possibly have given input or prepared himself for this. Only 10 days before the grand reveal did Churchill have a glimpse of the painting in the form of a photograph brought back by his wife, whereby he later described it as one that made him “look like a down-and-out drunk”. Whilst there are many speculations on whom the decision fell on to destroy the commissioned artwork, there was no doubt that Churchill saw an image of himself that he could not live with. His condescending comment of the work being a “remarkable example of modern art”, uncovers his conceited self expectations.
Churchill’s portrait is just one of the plethora of examples of the disparity between how we see ourselves, how we want to appear to be, and how others actually see us. At the age of 80, Churchill was largely immobile and frail in health. Having been worn out by the immense pressure of his political life, the painting by Sutherland was likely an accurate portrayal, though the integrity of this outsider’s view and depiction went under appreciated, to say the least. Possibly in the mind of Churchill, the self portrait was meant to be an extension to the things unseen, the symbolic representation to his life and his achievements. It was meant to capture not just any 80-year-old man, but the Winston Churchill - the man who had contributed significantly in the war and to the country of Britain. It was supposed to portray him in all his grandeur and glory associated with him, and not the subject blatantly sitting in front of Sutherland. Churchill wanted an interpretation; Sutherland gave an illustration.
The Emperor, sardonically portrayed in the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was ignorantly made made a fool of by a young boy, simply because of his tainted view of how others perceived him. Having bought the illusion that was marketed to him, the protagonist revealed his deepest insecurities and concerns and was played into it. Mankind’s concern with how we are portrayed reflects a deep-seated obsession with ourselves. We burrow ourselves within layers of impression-making, fine tuning (deception) to curate a perfect image. In a time when technology and media so rapidly conjures and propels this, we find ourselves racing to keep up with it all. Who can say how accurate that image is? No one will know - not even ourselves, the artist of the work. In a society where “authenticity”, “genuineness” have positive connotations, and we celebrate “being true to yourself”, the way we instead endeavour to paint a picture of ourselves seem to be quite the opposite.
Before we judge ourselves to be perfidious people, it would perhaps do good to see that we need these illusions to keeps us alive. What good would it do to see something for what it truly is? We desire a hope and comfort knowing that there is something more wholesome than the imperfect. In the distant past, the immediate response would be look to divinities and religion to fill that gaping hole. It wasn’t until the 18th century, that enlightened thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau started to consider looking at the essence of an individual as a plausible mean to finding purpose in life. The focus of our pursuit now turns to ourselves. For some fortunate few, they may “find themselves” and live with it. Yet, for most of us, in all our soul-searching and philosophical discussions, we drown further in the realisation that we are incomplete, unsatisfactory, unwholesome.
“One studied and educated oneself under an imperative to find the truth,
yet to live a happy life, which necessarily meant
a purposeful active life, one needs to be impelled by illusion, not truth - or certainly
not ultimate, philosophical truths.”
In an age of individualism, vanity could easily be re-branded to encompass one’s character or style. And social psychology reminds us that each of us possess a desire to be loved and celebrated for our uniqueness. If not for our outwardly appearances, then our intelligence, our humour, our skills. And the illusions that we build and believe in keeps us afloat amidst the realisations of our shortcomings (though comparing to what?). Sutherland’s tearing down of the impression Churchill so believed in showed a glimpse of the reality of who he was, yet Churchill refused to see it for it revealed the weaknesses and cracks. In the same way, it is easier for us to think of ourselves as kind, smart, beautiful, and to ignore or mask the cracks. I am afraid that dwelling in the truths of who we are would likely lead to our downfall.
So say what we may about pursuing authenticity and truths, or the criticisms of vanity; what we really need is the picture we shall paint for ourselves.