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PAINTING A PRESIDENCY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everyone knows you can't judge a book by its cover, but what about this: Can you tell anything about how a president will govern from the artworks he and his wife choose to put on their walls at the White House?

That question was implicit in the reporting this week on several dozen artworks that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama borrowed from Washington museums to display in their White House residence and offices. It's one of the perks of office the first couple enjoys when they redecorate their new home's private living quarters and public spaces. Strange as it may seem, in a city obsessed by politics, even their tchotchkes are examined as tokens of a political agenda.

Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly leaned to French painting and decorative arts, while Nancy Reagan preferred Old West landscapes and red Lenox china. In the case of the Obamas, several writers remarked on their unexpectedly eclectic, even adventurous tastes.

Mrs. Obama, who has said she wants her White House to celebrate the nation's diverse cultural heritage, picked Abstract Expressionist paintings by Josef Albers, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko, bronze dancers by Edgar Degas, genre scenes of 19th-century Native American life by George Catlin and cutting-edge contemporary artworks by Ed Ruscha and Glenn Ligon.

The thrust of the articles about the new artwork seemed to be that the Obamas were willing to think outside the box when it came to the art they enjoyed and that their selections, if not proof of a political predisposition, at least indicated an openness to looking at America and the world in a more nuanced way.

Besides being beautiful, for example, the Abstract Expressionist paintings from the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum also celebrated America's emergence after World War II as the center of the international art world.

The inclusion of William H. Johnson and Alma Thomas, two 20th century African-American masters, acknowledged the contributions black artists have made. And there are fine examples of contemporary Native American art by Lucy M. Lewis, Jeri Redcorn and Maria Poveka Martinez, on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Inevitably, some commentators took this embrace of diversity as a metaphor for the greater inclusiveness the Obamas wish to bring to the White House. That's to be expected from the nation's first African-American president. But viewing the collection solely as a symbol of coalition politics misses the mark if it serves to minimize the significance of the pieces chosen because they embody universal meanings valued by all Americans, regardless of race, class or creed.

My favorite in that regard is the diminutive painting titled "Sunset" by Winslow Homer, perhaps the greatest American painter of the 19th century. Despite its seemingly simple subject - as dusk approaches, a young boy pulls a boat out of a shallow stream - the image is redolent of a mood as familiar to us today as it was to the artist's contemporaries.

Homer painted the picture in 1875, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Unlike many of his paintings of children from that period, the mood is solemn, perhaps reflecting the somberness of America after the cataclysm of the war and its losses.

There's always more going on in a Homer painting that is at first apparent. Who is this youngster, and why is he alone? Did he lose a father, brother or uncle in the war? Is home the same place it was before his kinfolk marched off to fight?

These are the kinds of questions Homer's contemporaries would have asked, and in the painting's solemn, measured tones we can still feel their anxiety awaiting an answer.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threats from terrorist groups and rogue states and a financial meltdown that brought the economy to the verge of collapse, we are no strangers to such anxieties either. More than 5,000 American soldiers have been killed in battle since the Sept. 11 attacks, and we cannot know how many more will die before the conflict ends. But while it lasts, we're all in it together; Homer's painting captures a national disquiet that continues to trouble us.

A White House press spokeswoman said the Obamas will hang the picture in their private living quarters, and for that reason the first lady had declined to discuss why she chose this image. But I bet it wasn't a political decision. Some problems are so intractable and laden with emotion they don't break down neatly along partisan lines. Perhaps Homer's moody little painting was picked just as a reminder to the president and his wife that shepherding America to recovery may be one of them.

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