'Novus Ordo Seclorum', oil on linen, 125 x 100cm, 2019, collection of the artist
'Novus Ordo Seclorum'
The idea for this painting came from a Facebook discussion about who might paint President Trump's official portrait. Some of America's best portrait painters were part of this conversation, but it appeared none of them would touch the job: the phrase 'career suicide' was mentioned. It struck me as an opportunity lost. I started thinking about how I'd like to paint Trump; how it might be possible to portray him in a way that would satisfy his ego and vanity, be true to his belligerence and macho sexism, and also work as satire or critique. The old Frank Frazetta image of Conan the Barbarian came to mind as a template; one that would be true to his American low culture base and easily legible to all who grew up on cheap fantasy art and literature, superheroes, Hollywood etc., thus widely enjoyable and hard to disown or reject, whether you love Trump or hate him. When Michael Pearce asked me to contribute to an exhibition he was curating in California called 'The Illusionists', and explained the theme and crossover from fantasy art with 'Conan' artists like Boris Vallejo involved, I told him of my idea and he approved. Since the exhibition opened on March 31st, we decided to publish the image on social media on April 1st, claiming it to be President Trump's official portrait. I tweeted:
"Thrilled and honoured to be chosen to paint @realdonaldtrump official portrait! Heading to Washington for the unveiling."
There was the possibility it would go viral on Twitter and provoke the President to respond, but this involved a certain risk: he might not appreciate the joke! Falsely claiming the picture was Trump's official portrait essentially put me in legal jeopardy with the most powerful man on earth, and one not averse to suing and otherwise making life difficult for his enemies. I had to balance the risk of being sued and facing costs of hundreds of thousands in legal fees against the reward of possibly hooking the President of the United States in a practical joke. There was also the danger that he would love the painting, which had its own attendant risks! So it was with some trepidation that, just after midnight on April 1st in a California hotel room, I broadcast the image and switched out the light, knowing that it would be seen straight away by my home crowd in Ireland (8am Irish-time) and roll across the time zones while I slept.
The response to the painting was, to say the least, varied: I was cheered, denounced, and everything in between. Most people grasped the April fool's element, but not a few were taken in and really believed I had gone over to the Dark Side. Thankfully it didn't get me into any serious trouble and I assume passed beneath Trump's radar, but I got a little heat from some on the Left who thought I was glorifying him, and some on the Right who thought I was attacking him. I expected this. Reaching across the divide in our age of increasing political polarisation involves what I think of as 'dancing along cultural fault-lines', in my case using fantasy, humour, playfulness, irony, the feigned craziness of the court-jester, to articulate serious issues in manner that is both challenging and mercurial, and that allows and even encourages multiple interpretations.
When I painted it I imagined two opposed ideal observers for the picture: one on the far left who would see in this picture everything that is wrong with America, and one on the far right who would enjoy it all; who would see its machismo as empowering, its sexism as a poke in the eye to radical feminism, and the fascist salutes as really no big deal. In a deeply politically polarised culture the average intelligent viewer might be aware of both viewpoints, both possibilities, and thus face a real choice: whether to laugh and take it as a spoof, as satire, or to take it very seriously indeed; as the fascistic shape of things to come. For the many who failed to take Trump seriously, who still can't quite believe what happened and struggle to make sense of unfolding events, the answer may not be entirely obvious.
In the aftermath of my April foolery, I hope the painting continues to percolate through the internet and popular culture, and haunts President Trump's 'real' official portrait through the decades. It is in the nature of 'official' portraits that they are dull, boring, stiff affairs that say little of substance about their subject. I'd like to think that mine will be the best and truest image; that it will compete with and perhaps eventually even replace the official portraits in popular consciousness, becoming the ‘unofficial’ official portrait; the one he should have had, and eventually will.
Michael Pearce came up with the title. The motto 'Novus Ordo Seclorum' appears on the Great Seal of the United States (designed 1782) and can be translated as "A new order of the ages." It was intended to signify "the beginning of the new American Era" with the Declaration of Independence and has appeared on the back of the US Dollar Bill since 1935. My use of these words is obviously an ironic (perhaps tragic) repurposing.
- Conor Walton, July 2019
Watch Conor's video about this painting here