My family gave me the most wonderful gift for Father’s Day. It has me questioning the very nature of reality itself.
“What I’m hearing you say is you’re experiencing the uncanny,” Dorothy Moss said to me when I consulted her.
I was talking to Moss because she is the curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. My present was a pastel work of art that includes me in it. I’m not the main subject of the pastel, by the talented District artist JoEllen Murphy. It’s a noirish nighttime rendering of The Washington Post building on K Street NW, across from Franklin Square.
But there’s a little figure in the lower right who is unmistakably . . . me.
That figure is just a few square inches of colored chalk but it seems to conjure my very soul. The picture is hanging in the front hall of our house and every time I pass it, I give a little shudder. The features are indistinct, but what is there — a fedora, a striped tie, a certain barrel shape to the belly, a familiar stride — is enough to unnerve me.
This tiny simulacrum, this chalk-on-paper homunculus, looks like it could crawl out of the frame, drop to the floor and scurry around my house. Uncanny: It means strange or mysterious.
Among the things Moss does at the Portrait Gallery is commission paintings of famous living figures.
“There are people who really feel uncomfortable with this process,” she said. “And some ultimately decide not to go forward.”
It isn’t necessarily that a sitter fears the artist will make them look bad — refuse to ignore a receding hairline, accentuate a double chin — it’s that a good artist goes beyond the surface, delving into the psyche.
Said Moss: “I think there’s a vulnerability and maybe there’s also a fear that the artist will see something in you that you don’t want to reveal to the public or even to yourself.”
I’ve known JoEllen for nearly 30 years. She was the art director of The Washington Post’s Weekend section when I was the editor. Back then, our artistic challenges tended to be how to breathe new life into yet another cut-your-own-Christmas-tree cover story.
JoEllen took a buyout from The Post and is now a busy pastel artist. I didn’t pose for this work. My Lovely Wife commissioned it, sharing with JoEllen some photos of me. I’m thrilled by the finished result, if a bit discomfited.
We’ve all heard about people from primitive cultures who fear photography, certain it will steal the soul. But some modern people have felt that way, too. In his memoir, the 19th-century French photographer Félix Nadar wrote that writer Honoré de Balzac believed physical bodies were made of layers of ghostly images that were laid atop one another like thin skins.
Balzac, Nadar wrote, “concluded that every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph. Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life.”
You can imagine what Balzac would have thought of selfies.
Now, of course, it’s easy to take photographs, of ourselves and of others. But how often does a snapshot really move us? Or a painted portrait, even?
Two that have are at the Portrait Gallery now: Barack and Michelle Obama, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.
“The Obama portraits have tripled our attendance,” Moss said.
They’ve also spurred debate over portraiture itself. “The most debate was around Michelle Obama’s portrait,” Moss said. “It was a productive debate in terms of does a painted portrait have to look photo realistically like the subject?”
As noted above, some subjects decline the offer to sit for a Smithsonian portrait.
“I’m always fascinated in those moments when there’s hesitation on the part of the subject, and especially in those moments when someone says, ‘I’m unable to do this right now,’ ” Moss said. “Maybe they can’t even articulate why they’re uncomfortable with the process. They just decide not to go forward.”
Ooh, I said to Moss, care to tell me who nixed their portraits? She laughed and declined. Here’s hoping she’ll write a memoir some day.
As for JoEllen’s pastel and my reaction to it, Moss said: “You’re seeing yourself outside yourself. And it sounds to me like this was a very effective portrait.”
It’s true. I look at that pastel and I can’t help thinking, Where is that guy going? What is he thinking?
The fact that he’s me doesn’t make the answers come any more easily.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.