WHAT IT IS: Emperor Haute Couture, a painting by Kingston, Ont.-based artist Margaret Sutherland that depicts a reclining nude on a chaise longue. What's controversial -- and a little queasy-making -- is that the buck-naked subject happens to be Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.
WHAT IT MEANS: Sutherland cites as influences Edouard Manet's Olympia, which raised a ruckus in the 1860s because of the model's frank stare, and The Emperor's New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen's moral fable about power, sycophancy and truth.
Sutherland employs attention-getting exaggeration. After all, the intensely private Harper is one of the least likely naked people you could ever come across. He's the kind of guy who looks uncomfortable when he takes off his necktie. Back in 2006, he got caught out on world leader "casual day" when meeting with Vicente Fox and George W. Bush.
But Sutherland's satirical juxtaposition of straight style with cuckoo content would probably work better if the visual realism were more compelling. Here the anatomy is slightly wonky. The left leg is a bit off. The right hand, which should be referencing calm Renaissance poise, looks kind of dead. And the head seems to have been brought in from another painting and dropped onto Harper's body. (Thankfully, this visual misstep reassures us that he didn't pose for the painting. Whew.)
Sutherland has stated that the painting is a reminder that "all the members of the government have bodies," that what seems like abstract power can always be traced back to our common and fallible humanity.
And we do seem resistant to this message: Most news photos of the image manage to discreetly avoid what one commentator has called the PM's "Timbits" (in reference to the nearby Tim Hortons coffee cup).
WHY IT MATTERS: What's important here isn't so much the work itself, which is basically the visual-art equivalent of a novelty song, but the way it has been handled.
In South Africa, a painting of President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals recently provoked an angry controversy that involved armed guards, vandalism, protests, proposed media boycotts and threatened lawsuits.
In Canada, we have mild jokes, some gentle tut-tutting, and an anonymous buyer who snagged the painting for $5,000. Mostly there is a polite Canuck consensus on two things: 1) The artist has the right to express herself; and 2) nobody -- neither right-wing, left-wing, nor middle-of-the-road -- really wants to see a nude Stephen Harper.