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Boris Johnson gets a makeover

You’ll never guess what happened to this portrait of Boris Johnson

Londoners were invited to deface a painting of the arch-Brexiteer. But how useful is this kind of protest art?

Londoners were invited to deface a painting of the arch-Brexiteer. But how useful is this kind of protest art?

Bo Franklin | November 14th 2018

Boris Johnson’s face was already covered in paint, but I flicked lurid pink over him anyway. The woman next to me recoiled, wary of any errant splodges that might stain her crisp white jacket. Then she leaned in, reaching for a brush: “Actually, that does look like fun.” 

Following the vote to leave the European Union, Britain – or parts of it anyway – is going through the stages of grief. While the prime minister is bargaining, and many members of parliament are in denial, millions of Britons are still angry. Last month a march through London calling for a new referendum attracted 700,000 placard-wielding Remainers. But the sort of protest I found myself at last Thursday was much smaller and more intimate.

Helen Masacz, an artist with an impish streak of humour, had invited the public to deface her portrait of Boris Johnson, the country’s most prominent Brexit-supporting politician, at the opening night of an exhibition at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery. Located in London’s ritzy Pall Mall, it’s a stone’s throw from exclusive private members’ clubs such as the Oxford and Cambridge Club, the Carlton Club, the spiritual (and spirit-fuelled) home of the Conservative Party, and of course the Beefsteak Club, which Johnson is a member of. Masacz first exhibited the portrait in 2010, when her subject was London’s broadly popular mayor. By the time the painting was returned to her, the artist found that her opinion of Johnson had changed, as had that of many other Britons. As she puts it: “he has veered off course and is putting his political ambitions before the interests of Britain.” So, rather than letting him be immortalised as a statesman on canvas, she invited others to add to the portrait. “Cover Up”, as the painting is now called, will be sold later this week, with the proceeds going to charity.

At the evening’s start, gallery-goers would have seen a characteristically rumpled Johnson standing in front of a navy-blue backdrop holding a mollusc shell, a nod to his description of himself as soft on the inside but hard on the outside. By the time I had arrived, however, Britain’s former foreign secretary had been buried under an explosion of colour. According to Masacz, someone had already covered the whole canvas in pink as a feminist protest. On top of this, visitors, armed with oil paints and palette knives, had added swirls of yellow and deep gashes of black. I had half-expected to see a crowd of crudely drawn phalluses cavorting over Johnson, but the rudest graffito was the word “twit”, neatly written at the edge of the canvas – a twee riposte to a politician accused of damaging the country for his own ends.

Extreme makeover “Cover Up”

This being the opening of an exhibition, however, wine was flowing. A woman wearing a pair of Doc Marten boots began to meticulously paint “Eat the rich” in the top right corner of the painting, before snapping an Instagram-worthy shot. One man was more brazen, writing “Tory bastard” while being careful not to smudge his pristine cuffs in the wet paint. This elicited a cheer from another man struggling to hold his drink and keep a small dog under control at the same time. 

It’s easy to be flippant about small acts of dissent, especially when they take place in the gilded settings of Westminster, a London neighbourhood with a GDP per person more than five times the national average. But afterwards I found myself thinking of places where defacing an image of a politician could have severe consequences. Zehra Dogan, a Kurdish artist who painted a town destroyed by clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish insurgents, was jailed in Turkey last year on charges of producing terrorist propaganda. Ai Weiwei, perhaps the most famous dissident artist, is living in exile after fleeing China in 2015. Happily Britain remains a country where protest art thrives. Last summer, during President Trump’s visit to the UK, a huge balloon depicting the Commander in Chief as an orange, nappy-clad baby floated down the streets of London with the new mayor’s blessing. Just last week Cold War Steve, who makes surreal collages, created a nightmarish mural of Brexit Britain in the centre of Liverpool. The work, funded in part by England’s Arts Council, features Boris Johnson squatting over a pile of dung, while Vladimir Putin reclines next to him.

This latest example of protest art probably won’t keep Johnson up at night (although as somebody who is famous for his love of ancient Greek and Roman literature, he may be wounded by the label, picked out in white, “betrayer of the classics”). Throwing paint on the face of the establishment won’t change Johnson’s mind about Brexit. If anything, this event, thronged as it was with posh people, might boost his spurious “everyman” credentials. As one entry in the gallery’s guestbook read: “I liked the paintings + free wine. Not so much the 1% and BoJo lookalikes.” 

Face Value Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, London, until November 17th