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TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2016
Personal image is one of the most useful tools for the modern politician. In our age where the media is saturated with images of major political figures, the visual stamp of a politician has become extremely important to a successful career. For example, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign relied heavily on his warm smile, youthful vigor and a pristinely clothed public image. A few political leaders brave enough to step out of their pressed power suits have been able to use the body itself as a propagandistic tool. Yet, the line between successful sensation and disaster can be very easily crossed.

In August of 2007 Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former president, allowed himself to be photographed naked from the waist up while fishing in Siberia. He then posted those images on his personal website. The 54 year-old president showed off his cleanly cut pecs, trim torso, and powerful arms as he clutched a fragile-looking fishing rod. Without uttering a word Putin was able to communicate that his physical strength would translate directly to his effectiveness as a political leader. This blatant show of machismo not only created a sensation in Russia, but on news outlets around the world including ABC News, The Guardian, FOX, CNN, Time and CBC. Even though the photographs aided in making Putin a sexual figure in Russia, there was no outright sexuality in them. This could have been any guy fishing in Siberia with his shirt off. The fact that this was the president of one of the most powerful countries on the world was another matter.

Putin’s nude torso immediately calls up sexual associations, but it also brings up artistic and cultural links where the male nude symbolizes something much more complex. Painting and sculpture of the male nude from Greek antiquity, call up what are now culturally ingrained notions of the ‘ideal’ or ‘classic’ figure. This is the athletic, political and spiritual ideal that has been constructed around the male nude as a result of centuries of European art production ranging from Caravaggio to Rodin. This ideal is even appropriated into modern day pop culture through the representation of action figures. The bodies of Superman, Batman, Action Man, Wolverine and a long list of comic book heroes hearken back to the ideal of what the perfect man’s body should look like.

Putin isn’t the only political leader to have used his body as political propaganda.
In 1802 the recently crowned emperor Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned Venetian sculptor, Antonio Canova, to construct a sculpture of him. It was based on a 4th century BCE Greek statue of Apollo Belvedere, the God of poetry, the arts and the sun. The finished work showed Napoleon larger than life, toned, muscular and stark naked. Its debut in the national gallery of France was met with giggles by courtiers, probably the same way a few Canadians might feel at seeing the Prime Minister naked. It’s just plain awkward. Needless to say, Napoleon had the marble homage to himself shunted into one of the back rooms of the palace, never to be seen again during his reign.

The sensation Putin created compared with Napoleon’s disappointment suggests that there is no longer any plausible connection of political leaders with the divine. This ties in to what Joshua Reynolds, the 18th century painter and theorist, said in his Discourses: the Greek statesman was idealistic enough to be shown naked, but modern politicians lack the necessary innocence. The point is that artistic traditions from antiquity surrounding the male body still resonate with viewers and are used intentionally. They can no longer be used to their fullest extent to deify a figure, but their physical impression has lasted.

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