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National Portrait Gallery adds Shepard Fairey's portrait of Barack Obama

January 8, 2009 |  5:30 am

Shepard Fairey's portrait of Barack Obama will soon be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery

It's a quintessential American narrative. A picture rises from humble beginnings on the streets of Los Angeles to become a pop culture icon — and later gains entry to one of the nation's leading art museums.

That's the trajectory of Shepard Fairey's portrait of Barack Obama, which will soon be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

The museum announced Wednesday that it has added a collage version of the picture -- which evolved from a piece of street art into the symbol of Obama's historic presidential campaign -- to its collection. The work was donated by Heather and Tony Podesta.

The Portrait Gallery is better known for its collection of Gilbert Stuart paintings of George Washington than for street art, but curator Carolyn Kinder Carr said museum leaders felt that they had to have it.

"We all fell in love with it," said Carr, who is the deputy director and chief curator. "We always like portraits that reflect a particular moment in history, and we like the fact that it is an image that resides in popular culture."

Carr pointed out that there is a history of street art being adopted into the canon. "The posters of [Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec are essentially street art," she said.

Fairey's collage will likely be on view at the Portrait Gallery by Jan. 17 — just in time for Inauguration Day. It will be installed on the first floor of the museum in an exhibition titled "New Arrivals" — a not-quite-accidental double entendre, according to Carr.

— Kate Linthicum

Picture credit: Barack Obama by Shepard Fairey, via National Portrait Gallery

Comments () | Archives (11)

Is it just me or does this picture borrow some inspiration (pose and color contrasting) from a famous picture of Che Guevarra?

Great choice by the museum. I remember when I first saw the picture plastered on walls and electrical boxes around Hollywood and the Valley. I would never have guess the illustration of Obama would become an icon. Brilliant! I even have a shirt with the artwork on it.

How can I get my pic like this?

Congrats Fairey! It's only right!

It's a propaganda image featuring a lame, hollow slogan, not a portrait.

No accident that this particular version features SF's "OBEY" logo.
OBEY, indeed.

It also borrows inspiration from L.A. street artist Robbie Conal.

Del, it's just you.
Get over the Communist hang up and move on like the rest of us are.

I'd say commenter Del (above) is correct--the Obama image does derive from the Che photograph. It's common for artists to build on familiar precedents, and Alberto Korda's picture of Che is among the most famous graphic images of the late 20th century. I did a Culture Monster post about the Fairey portrait of Obama that talked about the Che image during the campaign last fall. You can find it here:

Congrats to Shepard -- that's a fantastic honor!

While his piece is nice, though, I prefer the Zombie version:

I should start stealing other people's artwork and passing it off as my own, maybe then I can get famous, too!


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