Six Degrees of Angela Merkel

My favourite among this week’s viral images has been the Dutch Graphic Designer Noortje van Eekelen’s Pantone Merkel, a tiled grid comparing postage-stamp sized images of the  German Chancellor, who was forming a new government yesterday after being re-elected for the second time. The New York Times hailed Merkel yesterday as ‘the most powerful politician in Europe‘.

My world, both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has been in a flutter, but not as a result of the election – it’s the photo-montage. Thanks to van Eekelen, I have heard people compare Merkel to all sorts of people – Hillary Clinton (of course!), Queen Elizabeth (fair enough, if you bracket the hats), and Su Li-zhen, the heroine of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. It was almost a disappointment to discover that these Pantone-style composites are a trademark of van Eekelen’s – his The Spectacle of the Tragedy porject has done Carla Bruni’s handbags in the same style, and Silvio Berlusconi’s pin-up girls, and a variety of male politicians as well.

But I still can’t look at the image without smiling. And I was intrigued by the range and depth of reactions that I was seeing from friends across various social media – Pantone Merkel had clearly struck a nerve.  Comments ranged from the censorious – a Greek friend said that he is glad to have proof that Merkel is actually a space alien – to the envious, a prominent female cleric who serves as Dean of a US cathedral pointed out how nice it must be not to have to think about what you are going to wear. (This from a person who regularly sports gilded ecclesiastical raiment!) For my part, I loved the idea that colour-coding will be the recognizeable and distinctive ‘signature’ of extra-terrestrials when they arrive on Earth.

Only one friend – a man, as it happened – mentioned the fact that if Merkel were a man, we would be far less likely to be the object of jokes – even quite sophisticated visual jokes – about her (his) appearance.  I’m sure this is true! A german friend-of-friend weighed in with the anecdote that Merkel had found a cut she could stand and then ordered by the dozen,so she could get back to the serious business of running Europe.

SoI found myself wondering: has Merkel’s evident lack of interest in displaying herself as an object for other people’s eyes served her well?  I suspect it has, and I certainly hope so. it is certainly an achievement for a woman to maintain international visibility with an image of strength and dignity rather than of sexual attractiveness of physical frailty.

I trawled the web in search of the source for the anecdote about Merkel’s shopping methods and never found it, but I did find rather more obsession with her clothes than I expected from the fashion world. Two fashion designers from her native Hamburg had contrasting views – Karl Lagerfeld (of Chanel fame) and Bettina Schoenbach (the designer behind many of Merkel’s signature jackets). Schoenbach’s approach was all about helping a powerful woman to get around the ‘fashion tax’ imposed on her public visibility (you can see why Merkel keeps going back to her), while Lagerfeld’s (you can see why he keeps getting passed over despite his claim to native son-dom) was about how more genius in the cut would flatter her (delightfully stocky) figure.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to muse about ‘shape-shifting’ women: female popes, transvestite nuns, desert mothers and veiled women of all kinds.  At the moment, I’m thinking that Chancellor Merkel might be a worthy addition to this pantheon. Any woman who can ignore repeated whining from Karl Lagerfeld about how she won’t let him dress her has my vote. If evidence was needed for the theory that she is actually a space alien, this is probably it! But then again, that theory is only popular in Greece…


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