The Changing Face of American Portraiture
In Its Rehabbed and Reorganized Digs, Gallery Pumps Fresh Air Into a Musty Old Form

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Here's John Updike, oiled on canvas -- and doesn't he look young? Here's Calvin Klein, squatting cheerfully on a table, surrounded by his own designs. Here's a craggy Robert Altman, a preening Tom Wolfe, a blissed-out Mia Hamm, Hillary Clinton, Shaquille O'Neal . . .

"And Toni Morrison," the museum director says, gesturing toward a formidable figure emerging from a stark white background.

The National Portrait Gallery is back, with a new look and some new faces on the walls. The gallery is to reopen Saturday, after six years of much-needed rehab on the historic building it shares with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Floor plans have been rejiggered. Lustrous new paint has been applied. But you'd have to know this strange institution unusually well to notice the more subtle changes.

That's where today's tour guide comes in.

Marc Pachter has been director of the Portrait Gallery since 2000, but he goes back further than that: He first came to the Smithsonian, in 1974, as the gallery's chief historian. The place was then just six years old, but even before it opened, many saw it as a musty embodiment of 19th-century notions: that museums should be celebratory pantheons, and that history was driven primarily by great men (and the occasional great woman).

Congress had authorized the gallery to collect images of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States." Part of Pachter's job, as historian, was to certify the "significance" of potential acquisitions before the National Portrait Gallery Commission voted them out or in.

"White men on horses" is his shorthand for the original interpretation of this mandate.

In its early years, the gallery couldn't even collect photographs, because the Library of Congress threw a hissy fit at the prospect of competition. This was a definite problem, because old-fashioned portraiture had declined as photography boomed.

As for the likes of Updike, Klein, Morrison et al.: They'd never have made the permanent collection. After all, they're alive . Under the old rules, designed to exclude flash-in-the-pan pretenders, no one could be admitted who hadn't been dead 10 years.

Pachter has begun his tour in the gallery's "Americans Now" exhibit, in part because it's the first thing you'll get to when you enter through the F Street door. But it's also because he's officially trashed the 10-year rule -- a mustiness-reduction measure at least as important as roof repairs and brightened walls.

The inclusion of contemporary figures is the most dramatic change in the gallery's philosophy. But there have been other adjustments as well.

"Okay, now we've entered 'Portraiture Now,' " Pachter says, moving a few feet down the first-floor hallway. This exhibit, he explains, is a showcase for artists and their approaches that will highlight the work of five contemporary portraitists at a time. It starts with a room of photographs by Andres Serrano, from a project about American identity that the artist -- best known for his ultra-controversial "Piss Christ" -- undertook after Sept. 11, 2001.

You'll find no urine-drenched crucifixes in "Portraiture Now" -- and no one of historical significance, either, unless you count Serrano himself. It's all about portraiture as a form. This, too, is an innovation: Congress did instruct the gallery to study the artists who created portraits of great Americans along with the historical figures themselves, but "Portraiture Now" seems to be pushing that envelope a bit. In this, it becomes part of a question that's been with the gallery since it opened:

Is this museum about history or is it about art? And if it's about both, how should the two be balanced?

There's no simple answer, as Pachter's own history shows.

Unlike previous directors with art history backgrounds, he had studied political science and American history (he was a PhD candidate at Harvard when the Smithsonian lured him away). Trained to think of images as incidental to historical scholarship, he found himself "stunned" by what exposure to the Portrait Gallery taught him: that images were documents to be analyzed, just like words on paper.

Three decades later, he sees the gallery as being about the history of "depiction." It's about who gets depicted in America during different historical eras and how they're shown -- about the way these choices "affect who we can see and how we see them." Call the place the "National Portrayal Gallery," he says, and its mission would be more easily understood.

Pachter moves on down the hall to where the more familiar, old-style historical displays begin to reinforce his point.

Here's a stunning portrait of Pocahontas dressed as an Englishwoman. Here's that old charmer Ben Franklin, looking precisely the way he does on a hundred-dollar bill. Here's a heroic bust of Andrew Jackson sharing a small room with a portrait of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet -- whose peaceful tribe Jackson forced west, as the gallery may or may not choose to point out, on the infamous Trail of Tears.

You'd have to be an aficionado to notice the non-cosmetic changes in these loosely chronological presentations, which form the heart of the Portrait Gallery experience. Portraits have been grouped somewhat differently, and flatly definitive period labels ("The Gilded Age") have been replaced by evocative quotations, high on the walls, from people such as abolitionist Wendell Phillips ("Insurrection of thought always precedes insurrection of arms"). But hat's not to say things haven't evolved a great deal since 1968.

In April of that tumultuous year, as staffers were putting together the initial white-men-on-horses displays, they could look out the windows and see flames from rioting sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Later, at a symposium celebrating the gallery's opening, anthropologist Margaret Mead looked around the all-white gathering and observed: "There's something wrong with this audience. Some people are not here."

The same could have been said about the collection.

By the 1970s, the search for women and non-white men was in full swing. Holes remain, but the results of the gallery's efforts are obvious. Visitors in July will encounter portraits of (among many, many others) Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Chief Joseph, Jacob Lawrence, Frances Perkins, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Clare Boothe Luce, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Lucille Ball, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Sojourner Truth, Jackie Robinson, Margaret Sanger, Joan Baez, Roberto Clemente, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan and Ray Charles.

Even this list, however, poses another historical question: Do you have to be famous for your contributions to matter? Gallery historians still must certify a subject's "significance" before he or she can be admitted. And while the definition has gotten way looser since 1968 -- hello, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop -- some kind of fame or notoriety remains a prerequisite.

Social historians, who grew in influence in the late 20th century, would answer this question differently from how the Portrait Gallery has done. It is tempting to speculate how the gallery might have evolved had it been called, say, the National Museum of Biography and shared a building with the National Museum of American History rather than an art museum.

Still, a cultural institution could do far worse, in these celebrity-obsessed times, than to ask questions about the changing ways American elites have been portrayed and what those changes have meant.

Oddly enough, the most striking evidence for this comes in one of the gallery's mustiest exhibition concepts. Walk into "America's Presidents," on the second floor, and you're confronted with a stultifying array of great men in portraits that range from the elegantly traditional to the hokily formal (hey there, Warren G. Harding). Small wonder your eyes go straight to the bold greens and yellows of Elaine de Kooning's John F. Kennedy, blazing out from between the gloomier canvases.

It might as well be a neon sign shouting: "Look! Here's the man who redefined presidential celebrity!"

To be fair, there's more to the presidential show than stilted portraits.

Pachter points out the fascinating contrast between a famous photograph of an exhausted-looking Abraham Lincoln near the end of the Civil War and a small watercolor on ivory he calls the "prettified" Lincoln, done as a campaign document to counter the candidate's perceived ugliness.

If the director has his way, the "National Portrayal Gallery" will do more and more to help visitors take note of such things.

When it reopens, they'll be able to see -- at least if they're paying close attention -- how the introduction of media such as the print and the daguerreotype magnified the distribution of portrait imagery. In today's "image-drenched universe," Pachter points out, we find it hard to imagine a time when most people didn't know what the nation's leaders looked like.

Coming soon will be "some kind of sophisticated hand-held thing" that will allow visitors to contextualize a portrait by calling up related images. For example, "when you stand in front of Martha Graham's image, the stance that she has only makes sense if you see her dancing . . . If s he's dancing in the palm of your hand as you look at it, you get it."

More broadly, the gallery will look for ways to expand our notions of what a portrait is . "A performance is a portrait. A biography is a portrait," Pachter says. "They're all ways of delivering lives."

But for now, old fans and newcomers alike may find it satisfying enough simply to walk the halls of the reborn National Portrait Gallery, experiencing the wonderfully skewed perspective it offers -- the epic sweep of the American story, refracted through the prism of the human face.

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