“Off with their heads!” Rhetorical Images of Heads of States

Mao: Another head in a different time and place.

“Off with their heads!” shouts Carroll’s Queen in Wonderland. Just so, Platon has beheaded them all in “Portraits of Power,” in the December 7 New Yorker.

The head of state is not a whole person, but a symbol, but of what?

“The king is an erection of the body politic,” Norman O. Brown says in Love’s Body. “The king personifies the pomp and pleasure of the community; but must also bear the burden of royalty, and, as scapegoat, take away the sins.” Yet the head retaliates with tyranny over the body.

The head of state is a figure, a doll, a clown, a puppet. But the heads glower like lead. The flash of the moment turns the head to metal. Platon’s photographs are like statues, busts; the heads in the color photos are surrounded with an eerie blue halo, as from a welder’s torch, echoed in Mugabe’s photo with a blue glow around his face, and a thin blue glow around his otherwise dark eyes.

England’s Gordon Brown, left eye slightly askew, appears to be saying, like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” While across the Irish Sea, Brian Cowen looks like a Roddy Doyle character just informed Ireland has made it to the World Cup finals, eyes disbelieving, mouth ready for the celebratory pint.

But not all the heads are smiling to be beheaded, nor are they all quite beheaded; two of the three women are spared, along with Qaddafi, who sports a paisley shirt that could have been worn by Sly Stone in There’s a Riot Goin On

Some of the heads shed an animal sense: Ahmadinejad a fox, Mesic an old dog. Some smile like they just ate the opposition (South Africa’s Zuma), or mischievously, like the Imp of the Perverse (Italy’s Berlusconi).

The electronic version of the portfolio contains a few more photos than the print version, and a couple of those are classics: Estonia’s Tooma Ilves, bespectacled with bowtie; and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, looking very much like a Baltic Hillary. It’s not clear why these did not make the hard copy cut. The online recorded commentary by Platon on each head is remarkable for its detail and accessibilty to an otherwise “behind the wall” process that readers of the print version alone don’t have. Platon’s comments are devoid of political content, focus on the passion he has for his craft; he has time to barely brush against these men and women who surely have seen so much, and his task is to capture all that they have seen in a flash and convert it to metal, which he does with alchemical art. 

And Obama? Give this man his body back; the photo is from a previous sitting – it was decided he would not sit for a photo like the others at this time and place.