The art of disguise: 2017 vs. 1746

On October 23, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson held a meeting with the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. Two official photos of the session were released the same day, one by Americans, the other by Afghans. At first glance, the photographs appear to capture the same scene; but, if you look more closely, differences emerge. 

In both photos, the men sit side by side, each flanked by his respective staff. A table with beverages divides the men. Behind them, two large television screens hang on the wall. But in the official U.S. image, a large digital clock and fire alarm appear above the screens, and the clock is set to “Zulu time”—a military term often used to describe Universal time. The image released by the Afghan president’s office omitted these two details.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as seen in photos provided by the U.S. State Department and Office of the President of Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as seen in two different photos provided by the U.S. State Department and the Office of the President of Afghanistan.

 

The military clock was a giveaway. Though both parties initially said the meeting had happened in Kabul, the Afghan capital, it actually took place 90 minutes away at Bagram Airfield, an American military base. Perhaps the Afghan PR team chose to remove the clock in an effort to suggest to Afghan people that the meeting took place on President Ghani’s terms and turf.

Ruling elite have long sought to control the narrative through visual representations of historic events. Mia’s special exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe,” showcases this common practice. European aristocracy and rulers often commissioned painters to document special occasions and important events. The resulting historical depictions, while giving the impression of accuracy and truth, often exaggerated or altered reality to curry favor with the painting’s patron.

For example, Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting (above) King Charles III Visiting Pope Benedict XIV at the Coffee House of the Palazzo del Quirinale, made in 1746. Commissioned by King Charles III himself, the large oil painting illustrates a meeting between the two leaders that had, in fact, taken place, but Panini took some liberties in his portrayal. The coffee house on the papal residence was an informal reception room for Benedict XIV. Although elaborate in its own right, especially by today’s standards, the building went from modest to magnificent in Panini’s rendering: he extended the side wings by a window’s length and added additional columns and busts. It’s unclear why Panini did this, though we can imagine it was to elevate the circumstances, the more grandiose setting reflecting the importance of the men and the meeting.

Top image: King Charles III Visiting Pope Benedict XIV at the Coffee House of the Palazzo del Quirinale, painted in 1746 by Giovanni Paolo Panini. See it along with many other historical paintings in “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through December 31.