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Art, Culture, Reality

Nobody Loves the Colonel

by Sean O'Toole / 24.02.2011

There is nothing like breaking news television to thrust you into the melée of here and now. Watching Muammar al-Gaddafi offering the Libyan people a protracted lecture on martyrdom and guiltlessness on Tuesday night, I couldn’t decide whether the swaddled dictator was an embalmed automaton or a method actor playing his greatest role yet – PW Botha in drag.

It was that erect finger. It swivelled like an antenna, warning the “rats and mercenaries” besieging Benghazi and, latterly, Tripoli that they had crossed the Rubicon. How many more times do we have to hear this speech?

Gaddafi on the Libyan Dinar

The setting for the televised address was pure theatre: a bombed-out building that, it is widely reported, that used to be Gaddafi’s Tripoli residence before it was destroyed by US war planes in the late 1980s. A monument to anti-imperialism, if you will. Gaddafi’s war ravaged mise en scène also included a sculpture of a gold fist crushing an American jet fighter. A tactless riposte, the artwork is firmly of the genre revolutionary kitsch and ranks up there with Saddam Hussein’s cutlasses, otherwise known as The Swords of Qādisīyah, on view in Baghdad.

Other key props included an unwieldy green textbook, which Gaddafi used to exhume dusty quotes from his 1975 revolutionary manifesto. His coup de grace, though, was the golf cart. It whisked him away, a retinue of strong men with rifles and state news employees with old-fashioned cameras hurriedly chasing after his carbon neutral getaway vehicle.

Robert Hodgins - Ubu and the Commanders in Chief
Robert Hodgins, Ubu and the Commanders in Chief, 1981/82, oil on canvas, 91 x 121cm.

I wish Rob Hodgins were here to see it. The thought ambushed me when the live news reporting cut to a crowd scene. Gaddafi loyalists were brandishing green flags and chanting that well-known chorus, the one with the looping refrain: “We love you unconditionally, dear leader.” The swoop of the live news camera briefly paused on a man, probably the mean age of an Idols contestant. He was holding a framed picture of the Colonel in full military attire, that is, with oversized hat and shoulders flowing waterfalls of gold ribbon.

Ah yes, the big man of destiny in his military fatigues. Aren’t we intimately familiar with him? Painters throughout the ages have focussed their attention on this figure, sometimes, as in the case of Jacques Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon’s imperial coronation in 1804, a little too adoringly. Hodgins, though, was more of the school of Otto Dix and John Heartfield, artists whose work pilloried the rhetoric and pageantry of autocratic state power.

Arguably Hodgins’s best work in this vein is his early 1980s oil on canvas Ubu and the Commanders in Chief. Two Gaddafi lookalikes flank a bald MacBeth with Henry Kissinger glasses. The opulent red couch and sickly pink background lend the painting a sanguine mood. “Come china,” one can almost hear the man in the middle parroting comedian Mel Miller, “I smaak violence.” Which, crudely translated into South African English, is also what Gaddafi told his people on Tuesday night.

David - Napoleon's Coronation
Jacques Louis David, Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and crowning of the Empress Josephine in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on 2 December 1804 (detail), 1806-7, oil on canvas, 621 x 979cm.

Otto Dix

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