Ernest Hemingway took off most of his head with a shotgun 38 years ago, but he still has the power to make you feel like a failure.

He's the father you could never live up to or he's the father you wished you'd had, an alpha male, a master of charm, cruelty, celebration of life and the nerve-end clarity of modernist beauty.

It doesn't matter how much you've done of the boxing, bullfights, love, despair, drinking, war and all the other Hemingway experiences that young men have collected like items on a Hell Week scavenger hunt. No matter how hard you've tried, you've still failed to live up to Papa. Or you can decline to try--you can reject this persona as a mindless macho fantasy. Either way, it's hard not to have played his game.

He lingers in your psyche like an unquiet spirit. He has been one of the larger gods of the American pantheon in this century--his hundredth birthday is July 21.

Hollywood producer David O. Selznick said: "Hemingway is himself a star. He is box office." He was a star who performed not on stage or film, but in still photographs, back in the great age of the still photograph. There were thousands and thousands of them. Some are on view at the National Portrait Gallery in "Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time."

Man Ray made art portraits of him in Paris. Robert Capa made combat portraits of him in the Spanish Civil War. Between 1941 and 1961, Life magazine ran 16 features on him. In 1957, Yousuf Karsh took the famous picture of Hemingway as the grizzled lion in what appears to be a fisherman's turtleneck sweater. (In fact, the sweater came from Christian Dior in Paris.) As that portrait was becoming the prime icon of Hemingway, John Bryson took the 1958-59 pictures that in hindsight seem to show the alcoholism, paranoia, depression and physical disintegration that would converge in his suicide in 1961.

If he was a god, you see it in some of these photographs--a modern god of contradiction, irony and hypocrisy. As classical scholar Caroline Dexter points out, the Greek gods embodied contradictions as a group. Hemingway did it in himself. Cover half of some of these portraits and you see cruelty; cover the other half and you see wistfulness. There's the hunter in one eye, the hunted in the other; a mouth sneering on one side and resigned on the other.

In a family picture from 1906, you see the bully in his mother's face and the melancholiac in his father's, while little Ernest stares unhappily away from them and his three sisters. (A brother would come later.)

In 1918, a jolly and wounded Hemingway leans on crutches in Italy. Behind him, by odd coincidence, is a mustachioed figure who looks like the darker, harder Hemingway of the 1920s.

His face is hard to resolve. You keep thinking about it. This is why he was a star of still photographs. And this is why you can't live up to him. He's too complicated to imitate. He was gourmet and gourmand, stoic and hedonist, the man of action and the man of letters. He was a grinning omnivore and he was a lonely samurai surrounded by an entourage he'd turn against, now and then, out of the sort of meanness or dark delight that would prompt him to shotgun sea gulls when the fishing was bad.

He charmed people and he bullied them. Sometimes there wasn't any difference.

Writer Nathan Asch recalled Hemingway in the 1920s, a celebrity in Paris's Anglo-American literary community even before he'd written much of anything. He'd lope past the Cafe Dome in his sneakers and his presumptuously handsome vitality, looking as if he were on his way somewhere else. "Arms waved in greeting and friends ran out to urge him to sit down with them. . . . He wouldn't quite recognize who greeted him. Then suddenly his beautiful smile appeared that made those watching him also smile."

In other words, Hemingway put his friends' dignity and status in jeopardy, and then rescued them from the jeopardy he'd put them in. They were threatened. They were saved. They were charmed.

The show is photographs, paintings, dust jackets, magazine coverage, bits of manuscript and adolescent writing. Exhibits become reliquaries: There are pieces of mortar shrapnel taken from his body after a few weeks on the front lines as a Red Cross ambulance driver handing out candy and cigarettes, and the medal he won for helping others after he was wounded. You see pictures of the people he cultivated--Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Sylvia Beach--owner of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Ordinarily, they'd be the context in which he moved, but Hemingway has become the context in which they moved.

His coarseness and lying were repellent. His charisma was godlike.

Gen. Charles Lanham described a dinner near the German border in the fall of 1944: "We all seemed for the moment like minor gods, and Hemingway, presiding at the head of the table, might have been a fatherly Mars delighting in the happiness of his brood."

A correspondent-artist named John Groth recalled that when Hemingway left the front to go back to Paris, the place now seemed "like a French town that had lost its cathedral."

As long as 70 years ago, he made young men feel like failures because they did not live "well and truly" the way he did. But he neglected to mention that it helps if your wife has enough money to pay for the skiing at Schruns, the bullfighting at Pamplona, the villa in Key West, the farm in Cuba, the marlin fishing, the safaris, the decline into drunkenness and celebrity and the years after World War II when more was being published about him than by him, especially after he won the Nobel Prize in 1954.

He brutalized his body with booze and accidents, but didn't smoke because tobacco dulled his sense of smell. He was a big-shouldered aesthete who found meaning in nothingness. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," a waiter thinks: "It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order."

He told F. Scott Fitzgerald that "we are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously." Part of his gift was making the hurt seem beautiful, a gift comparable to Emily Dickinson's, a hyper-real vision like the world magnified through a drop of water.

A short story named "In Another Country," about a wounded officer in World War I, begins with what amounts to a hymn to death and bitchedness.

"In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains."

This was Hemingway's style at its best: sensual, ironic, tough, sensitive. To the extent that his writing alone created the Hemingway who lives on in our imaginations, this is it.

To the extent that photographs created him, a lot of them are here. You may have seen them before, but the point of this show isn't the unearthing of hidden character but celebration of a cult-hero--a god, celebrity, icon and mystery. This mystery deepens when you study the darkness of Hemingway's persona even in pictures of him grinning. You sense a no-win game going on. It's a game in which the closest thing to winning is losing on your own terms, which he did with his shotgun, but didn't when you consider a promise he made to his son never to kill himself, and a Hemingway motto that biographer Michael Reynolds quotes in his perceptive catalogue essay: Il faut (d'abord) durer. (First, it is necessary to endure.)

By the end, Hemingway had worried for decades that like a god--Dionysus, Osiris--he would be torn apart by mortals in the form of critics, imitators, envy freaks and parasites. They tried. But Hemingway's real tragedy may have been a secret pride that only Hemingway was a hero worthy enough to destroy Hemingway. This is a match-up you lose, but it produces a hypnotic incandescence, "gives a lovely light," as Edna St. Vincent Millay said in her poem about the candle burning at both ends.

If Hemingway had been young in the '60s, he might have challenged himself with huge doses of LSD, in the manner of Ken Kesey, the charismatic novelist and near-Olympic heavyweight wrestler of the time. Instead, he did it with all his assaults on his own genius-monster soul, concussions, falls, manias, depressions, hyper-realities, airplane crashes, profound and prolonged drunkenness, rage, charm, paranoia and fame. The scars are obvious in the face you see here.

His suicide should have seemed fitting, and it should have absolved your failure to live up to him, but no.

It's not just the writing. He retains his power over ambitions of the American soul--his sons have brought out a Hemingway line of furniture that doesn't seem to resemble the slipcovered zebra-skin bohemian tackiness of his houses, but has the Hemingway name on it. Earlier, they brought out a line of sporting goods and a Hemingway shotgun. Catalogues like to throw in references to Hemingway as a paragon of knowing how to live. There are Hemingway conventions and contests (fishing, look-alike, writing), a PEN literary award, a Hemingway Mont Blanc pen (though he wrote with a pencil), a street named for him in Pamplona, a Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, the Papa Doble daiquiri at the Floridita in Havana, and Hemingway houses open to the public.

Discussions of Hemingway tend to veer toward winnowing out the good stuff from the bad. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" goes, then "A Farewell to Arms," until the only novel you're left with is "The Sun Also Rises," until somebody points out that his short stories were better than his novels, anyway, and you pare them down until you're left with a half-dozen.

Odd. We don't do that with Faulkner, but then who would try to sell Faulkner furniture or fountain pens?

'PICTURING HEMINGWAY'

"Picturing Hemingway: A Writer In His Time" is an exhibition of more than 100 photographs, paintings, drawings, letters, first editions, manuscripts and personal memorabilia that tell the story of the writer on the centenary of his birth. The exhibit includes likenesses of Hemingway's friends and contemporaries, including Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Max Perkins, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same title by Frederick Voss, the curator of the exhibition. The book ($35) includes an essay by Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds. The Portrait Gallery, at 8th and F streets NW, is open from 10 to 5:30 daily. Admission is free.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 7.

CAPTION: In John Bryson's late-1950s close-up of Ernest Hemingway, hints of a complex personality: There's the hunter in one eye, the hunted in the other.

CAPTION: A Huck Finn-like Hemingway at age 6, fishing in Horton's Creek, Michigan; Below, a Hemingway family portrait taken in 1906 (Ernest is pictured on far right).

CAPTION: Armed and sometimes dangerous: Ernest Hemingway hunting in Idaho in 1941, left, and with a dead leopard in 1953. Above, the writer in his World War I ambulance driver's uniform, circa 1918.

CAPTION: The literary lion in 1957, four years before his suicide.