an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

“Respect” Not “Hagiography”: How National Portrait Gallery Sizes Up Obama & His Predecessors

In pithy new blurbs, the National Portrait Gallery’s revamped and reinterpreted “America’s Presidents” installation strives to tell each former officeholder’s “unique stories of both triumph and failure” (in the words of the introductory wall text). The individual labels for the portraits of our 44 previous chief executives explore both the heights and depths of their terms in office.

Installation shot taken from entrance to the “America’s Presidents” galleries
Photo Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

To the best of my knowledge, most members of the national art press who attended last week’s unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obamas‘ portraits in the NPG’s expansive Kogod Courtyard didn’t return the next day (as I did) to see how the new additions had been installed in the galleries. (Here’s my report on that.) I’ve seen only one report (by Ben Davis for artnet) mentioning the label text for Obama portrait, and no analysis putting that in the context of the NPG’s interpretive takes on other recent Presidents.

So here’s my spin on the NPG’s spins:

Below is the Obama portrait’s label. (The text that you glimpse at bottom right is from the Spanish translation—a new feature of the “America’s Presidents” reinstallation.)

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The only total misfire that the NPG’s label alludes to is Obama’s unrealized “pledge to close the Guantanamo prison” (which President Trump has now ordered to remain open). The label doesn’t mention that the Affordable Care Act, while having “extend[ed] health benefits to millions of previously uninsured Americans,” is in the process of being dismantled under the current administration. This means that what is arguably Obama’s greatest (although highly controversial) achievement could prove to be very short-lived.

More surprisingly, the gallery’s label omits text that’s included in the entry on Obama contained in the NPG’s just published “America’s Presidents” handbook, which is keyed to the new installation. (The link is to Amazon. Strangely, the Smithsonian-published book is not offered for sale, at this writing, on the NPG’s own Publications webpage.)

The new handbook’s cover
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The handbook exactly reproduces the galleries’ label texts for the other Presidents. Perhaps it was the political sensitivity of the following passage on Obama that led to its being kept out of both the gallery display and the Obama entry on the NPG’s website.

The only place you can find this sentence is on p. 163 of the new handbook, directly after the text that is duplicated on the gallery label:

Despite the promise of his election and his accomplishments, the issue of Obama’s race—and even his American citizenship—continued to be topics of discussion as the political culture began to fracture by the end of his second term.

It seems to me that “the issue of Obama’s race” only “continued to be a topic of [negative] discussion” among racists. And the NPG’s published account should have unequivocally stated that the question of Obama’s “American citizenship” was an entirely bogus issue.

What’s more, contrary to the assertion in the handbook’s passage, the “political culture began to fracture” long before “the end of Obama’s second term.” That’s why his attempts to realize his legislative agenda were thwarted—perhaps Obama’s biggest “failure.”

The need to walk a fine line in crafting the capsule summaries for the portraits’ labels was acknowledged by the NPG’s senior historian emeritus, David Ward, in his introduction to the new guidebook:

The challenge for the museum is to recognize the importance of the presidents and treat them with respectful critical attention but not to lose perspective and fall into hagiography.

That said, the museum flirted with hagiography in the label for Ronald Reagan (and even more so in the earlier Reagan label that it replaced). Here’s an excerpt from the current label:

The former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan was a formidable politician whose rise exemplified the shift in American demographics to the west and southwest. Within the Republican Party, his ascension marked the revitalization of the conservative, western wing of the party….He unapologetically reduced social welfare programs and encouraged a conservative social ethic regarding the role of religion in public life and reproductive rights.

Reagan’s large, centrally placed portrait dominates the gallery devoted to the most recent Presidents:

Everett Raymond Kinstler, “Ronald Reagan,” 1991
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the list of what, to Reagan’s supporters, was a succession of accomplishments, the label-writers inserted only one negative: “His conservative stance led him to largely ignore the AIDS crisis.”

I don’t think you needed to have a liberal “stance” to care about and undertake measures to address the AIDS crisis, any more than today’s conservatives would regard political ideology as an excuse to ignore the current opioid crisis.

Unlike the other Presidents in the section for recent office-holders, Reagan is represented not only by his large, signature portrait, but also by two smaller NPG-owned images:

L to R: Diana Walker, “Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev,” 1987; Aaron Shikler, “Ronald Reagan,” 1980
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This ample array comes across as favoritism—perhaps a concession to the Republicans now in power, who hail Reagan as a hero. There is, after all, some self-interest in pleasing the politicians who each year will determine the budget of the federally funded Smithsonian.

And then there’s the Bill Clinton/Chuck Close dilemma…

The portrait now on display…

Chuck Close,”William J. Clinton,” 2006
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…is not the NPG-commissioned portrait that had originally been hung:

Nelson Shanks, “Bill Clinton,” 2005
Screenshot from National Portrait Gallery’s touchscreen image database

Nelson Shanks, the artist responsible for the commissioned portrait, later revealed that the shadow to Clinton’s right referenced White House intern Monica Lewinsky‘s infamous blue dress. He said that while he was painting, he had hung an actual blue dress to cast a shadow on the replica of the Oval Office fireplace that he was using as the setting for his portrait.

After extricating itself from this embarrassment, the NPG eventually found itself embroiled in another sex-related controversy, this time involving the substitute portrait of Clinton by Chuck Close, shown above. Unlike the other “America’s Presidents” portraits, the Close is privately owned. During my visit, I was told that the museum has not decided whether to switch out Clinton’s portrait yet again, in light of the surfacing allegations about the artist. The nearby National Gallery of Art recently canceled a planned Chuck Close show because of the sexual misconduct allegations. (If a replacement is needed, this Clinton portrait, also owned by the NPG, has the modest virtue of being vapidly innocuous.)

Ward’s did-he-really-write-that analysis of the Lewinsky episode (in his introductory essay for the handbook) only sunk the NPG deeper into Clinton quicksand:

There was a brief interlude in Bill Clinton’s administration in which the president reportedly bemoaned the fact that he did not live in challenging times and thus could not achieve a “legacy” like his hero John F. Kennedy. (The lack of a sustained period of crisis to occupy him may have contributed to the sex scandal, and its extensive media coverage, that led to his impeachment.)

Huh? If the Presidency didn’t provide enough challenges “to occupy him,” maybe Clinton should have worked hard on improving his saxophone prowess.

In another portrait switch, the “Reagan” now displayed at the NPG is not the one originally commissioned. About that work, by Henry Casselli, Jr., Reagan had exclaimed: “Yep, that’s the old buckaroo,” (in the words if its label).

To the NPG’s credit, the new labels for the five most recent former presidents mostly improve upon the prior labels (the texts of which I requested), in terms of comprehensiveness, scholarship and incisive analysis. (You can read them here and form your own judgments. The newer versions are the ones accompanied by Spanish translations.)

In the text at the end of the new handbook, we get a preview of how the NPG may treat the current President, characterized there as a “real estate magnate, businessman and reality television star.”

Here’s an excerpt from the museum’s current take on Trump:

For Trump himself, all publicity is good publicity. [I knew that from the one time I met him, long ago, when I was writing a NY Times real estate story.]…The beginnings of his presidency have been tumultuous and even chaotic as he has begun to exercise political power. As was the case with his business career, the presidency of Donald Trump will be defined by the personality of the man himself….

The official portrait of Trump will be completed after he leaves office.

When that might be is anyone’s guess.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: My travel for this and for my previous NPG story was at my own expense. If you value my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notifications of new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog