TORONTO – It takes political transparency to a whole new level.
Canadians got an eyeful Friday as images of a painting depicting the prime minister in the nude went viral.
The large oil on canvas, which Stephen Harper did not pose for, is by Kingston, Ont.,-based artist Margaret Sutherland.
It shows the prime minister reclining on a chaise lounge wearing nothing but a subtle smile, surrounded by people in suits, whose faces can’t be seen. A dog rests at his feet as a woman in business attire offers him what looks like a Tim Hortons cup on a silver platter.
The piece appeared to draw out the art critic in many Canucks.
“This is just too funny – think she painted him a bit skinny – he should really be wearing his vest,” Myrtle Graham posted on Facebook.
“This made my day. Nude Stephen Harper is ART,” tweeted Denise Balkissoon.
Other’s weren’t as amused: “Oh dear lord: may have to pluck eyes out now,” tweeted Paula Schuck. “I don’t know whether to laugh or be horrified,” added Kelsey Rolfe.
The Prime Minister’s Office also took to Twitter to voice a reaction to the piece.
“On the Sutherland painting: we’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person,” tweeted Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall, referring to the canine on the canvas.
Others on Parliament Hill took a similar tongue-in-cheek approach.
“This is one case where I think we really do need a Conservative cover-up,” said Liberal MP Scott Brison. “I guess you could say in this painting it’s quite obvious that the Prime Minister has very little to hide.”
For Sutherland, who completed the painting last year, the point of her piece was a satirical one.
“It was a sort of a culmination of some general frustrations of the federal government’s policies and what they were telling us,” said Sutherland, who has been particularly peeved with the government’s elimination of the long form census and its closure of certain prison farms.
“The political message is to look for yourself and don’t necessarily believe the party line.”
The painting’s title — Emperor Haute Couture — is also part of the pun as it carries a reference to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a tale by Hans Christian Andersen in which a vain king parades around naked, believing his new suit is so superior that it is invisible to those unfit for their positions in life.
“Satire is a great way to make valid social comment and have some fun at the same time,” said Sutherland.
But while she often paints nudes, the 50-year-old added that her much-talked-about painting will likely be her only depiction of a politician.
The painting is priced at $5,000 and already has a few interested buyers.
It currently graces a wall at the Kingston public library as a finalist in the Juried Art Salon, a competition hosted by the Kingston Arts Council.
“The bemusement and the ironic value of the portrait is certainly appreciated by the adults in the community,” said council president Joan Heaton, who called the painting a bold work of art.
The painting has, however, ruffled some feathers in the community, largely because of the fact that it is a nude work displayed in a room where children’s recitals are held.
The library now covers up the piece when a children’s program is under way and has it on full display at all other times until the end of the month.
“A lot of people think it is disrespectful,” said chief librarian Patricia Enright. “We’ve also had comments from other people who are unhappy that we were covering it.”
The library is trying to balance artistic creativity with the fact that the room is used by a range of people, Enright said.
But Sutherland feels covering her painting is too cautious a move.
“The point of the painting is not to show genitalia,” she said. “Perhaps we need to have a discussion about public art and how careful we are of children’s sensitivity.”
Before it was displayed in Kingston and attracted the country’s attention, the painting of the prime minister baring it all was first displayed last fall at Toronto’s Edward Day Gallery, which represents Sutherland.
Gallery owner Mary Sue Rankin said amid all the hubub the painting has created, Sutherland’s piece ultimately has a serious message about Harper not living up to his promises.
“There’s no sensationalism in what’s she’s done,” said Rankin. “She just painted her heart, painted her thoughts.”