WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin has pranced around nearly au naturel performing all sorts of manly activities — fishing, hunting and riding a horse through the Siberian wilderness. But until now, he hasn't been fully exposed.
Ukrainian artist Olga Oleynik — who achieved a measure of global fame for her nude portrait of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — sent Foreign Policy a nude painting of the Russian leader. Inexpertly done with a dark, brownish palette, Putin lounges on what looks like a leather couch in a seductive pose, grabbing his left knee only to expose his large genitalia.
Overall, it makes for quite an unsightly image.
"The painting is more a political statement than an aesthetic one," Jonathan Katz, director of the doctoral program at State University of New York Buffalo's Department of Art, said in an interview with Foreign Policy.
Oleynik's work is indeed far from aesthetically pleasing, but it has made some waves online (for now, that is the only place her Putin painting can be seen since no galleries appear to want it). The 25-year-old's art caused a stir in late March, when she exhibited a nude portrait of Yanukovych in a cafe in Kiev. Like Putin, Yanukovych is sprawled naked, equipped with a huge gut and manparts rather less impressive than his Russian counterpart's.
Some in the media assumed the painting to be part of the trove of artwork and luxury items found in the Yanukovych's lavish Mezhyhirya residence after he was ousted from power in February. Alas, Yanukovych may have been out of touch with political reality, but he didn't go so far as to commission a highly unflattering nude portrait of himself.
In March, Oleynik told AFP that in 2012 she had painted a nude of Putin as part of the same series but was "still a bit afraid" to show it. Since then, Oleynik told Foreign Policy in a Facebook message, she "gained confidence" and wanted to show the world her work. Part of the reason for her change of heart was the change in power in Ukraine — she saw that she was not punished for exhibiting the Yanukovych piece, and believed that the new provisional government was not a group of "crazy gangsters." Today, she said, she wants to take a "bold political stand" as an artist.
The contrast between the size of Yanukovych and Putin's private parts is striking — and yes, you guessed it — it's supposed to represent the differences in the leaders' power. "It's like — small men buy big, big cars," she said in an interview with FP, using an age-old cliche, but also referring to Yanukovych's opulent lifestyle. "Inside he is very, very small," she said. "He is just a puppet in Putin's hands."
Although he called the painting's ironic play "sophomoric" and "infantile," Katz, an art historian and curator whose work focuses on the intersection of queer history and art, provided a Freudian analysis of the work. "Phallic power depends on obscuring the penis," Katz said, and on the analysis, the exposure of Putin's penis becomes a way of undermining the strongman.
"In fact it is the ultimate irony that something so small and fragile represents power," Katz says. "When we see Putin's pee pee, the irony of it all hits home."
Another curious part of the painting is Putin's intricate looking watch, his only accessory. Oleynik said that it is meant to symbolize his internal anxiety versus his outside appearance of calmness.
Although both paintings have been rejected by Ukrainian buyers and galleries, Oleynik plans to resume her work. She said she has chosen the newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko as her next subject. When asked how would she equip him, she said she was not yet sure.
Only time will tell, along with his performance.
Hanna Kozlowska, a fellow at Foreign Policy, previously worked as a researcher and freelance contributor for The New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine.