A Look Back at the Uproar Over Hans Haacke's Tate Portrait of Margaret Thatcher

A Look Back at the Uproar Over Hans Haacke's Tate Portrait of Margaret Thatcher
(Courtesy Library of Congress / Courtesy gilly youner via Flickr)

With the passing of Margaret Thatcher putting the former Prime Minster in our minds today, we thought it was worth revisiting Hans Haacke’s once controversial portrait of the Iron Lady. The work will be familiar to contemporary audiences: It was included in the recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years.” Its original reception was very different, however, from its reception today.

First shown in 1984 at the Tate, Haacke's piece, “Taking Stock (unfinished), caused a stir not so much because it made the Prime Minister look homely (in the manner of the recent controversy over the Dutchess of Cambridge's portrait) — this oil painting, a faux official portrait of Thatcher in a flowing blue gown, showed her surrounded by Victorian finery like tassled curtains and the Pandora sculpture by Harry Bates. Nothing controversial there: After all, she was all about promoting Victorian values.

It was the presence of the broken plates in the background depicting the faces of advertising big wigs Charles and Maurice Saatchi — whose firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, handled the advertising for three of Thatcher’s campaigns — that became the flashpoint. Ever critical of corporate sponsorship in the art world, Haacke claimed at the time that he was making a point: the Saatchis used their donations as a “vehicle for power, prestige and social climbing.” The work, then, was offered as a critique of the increasingly uneasy relationship between corporate sponsorship and art.

One month after the opening of that Hans Haacke exhibition at the Tate, Charles Saatchi resigned from the museum's Patrons of New Art, as well as from the board of the Whitechapel Gallery, another public institution in London.

Thirty years on, seeing this painting in the Warhol show, in the section “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” alongside images like Warhol’s portrait of Mao Zedong, it may be hard for viewers to believe it could have such an incendiary effect. It barely causes an eyelash to bat. In the catalogue for the Met exhibition, in an interview Haacke reflects on the changed perceptions of the work:

Of course it is received very differently today. It doesn’t ruffle feathers anymore, neither in London nor in New York. In 2000 it was even included in an exhibition with the title “Painting of the Century: 101 Portrait Masterpieces: 1900-2000 at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Similarly, the Tate’s acquisition of work by Carl Andre would not cause a national uproar in the UK anymore, as it did in 1976. After a lapse of time and in a different context, reactions do change, no matter where and when and what may have been the cause of rumblings in the beginning. Obviously, this rule is not particular to the art world. It governs the entire social arena.