New presidential portrait veers from tradition

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

The incoming president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, has unveiled his official portrait. The photo will hang in state offices and some classrooms after he takes office. In the Czech Republic, as in other countries, the official portrait is something of an institution; but the new official photograph, at least in several respects, breaks with tradition.

Miloš Zeman,  new official portrait on the left,  photo: CTK
The new official portrait shows a relaxed President Zeman against a dark background, wearing a dark suit. Nothing out of the ordinary, except... anyone viewing the portrait is most likely to first notice Mr Zeman’s hands calmly folded under his chin. That may seem like a minor detail, but only if one neglects all official presidential portraits in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia in the past, from Masaryk to Klaus. All only featured the statesmen’s heads and shoulders and a bit of necktie. Mr Zeman’s portrait, shot by independent photographer Herbert Slavík, some have suggested is a good deal more informal, more suitable in a way for the photo on a book jacket. A little earlier I spoke to journalist, critic and photography specialist Josef Chuchma:

“In my view the photograph turns a shortcoming into a virtue, namely by using Mr Zeman’s hands to help hide his double-chin. It seems to me that that element is visually subdued and it’s a trick. It is a nice photograph but at the same time it is a photo that glosses over something. That’s not something, in my opinion, that an official photo should do.”

By comparison, in 1990, President Václav Havel’s first official portrait, shot in black & white, became iconic; the photo of his successor, Václav Klaus in 2003, was respected but more workmanlike. But Miloš Zeman’s suggests a bigger departure: along with the change in pose, is a change in approach: until now the president’s portrait was traditionally shot by the state-owned Czech news agency – not by independent professionals. Critic Josef Chuchma again:

“Of course it has an effect and the picture is different. It’s a different kind of photograph, one that is more suited for the cover of a magazine. By comparison, the first portrait of Havel had a kind of stateliness to it. Of the three post-1989 presidents, I think his portrait was the best. Václav Klaus’s was somewhat more ordinary and not in a good way. I think this kind of photo should reflect a certain stateliness and Mr Zeman’s doesn’t. What it does have is a certain marketing drive and the aim ‘to be liked’.”

Not all, of course, agree. Certainly there are many online, for example, who have found the new official portrait to their liking, praising both its style and approach. At the same time, a number of parodies on the internet have already begun to spring up, one of the more irreverent casting the country’s new president, hands clasped, as the next Pope.