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Book review: “Americans” by the National Portrait Gallery, with a forward by John Updike

Look at these three portraits:

Combo .... 1 Look at the eyes of Georgia O’Keefe in Paul Strand’s photograph. Leave aside the fact that she was a great 20th century artist. Leave aside the composition of the picture. Can you avoid looking at her eyes? They jar. They unsettle.

The Robert Frank photograph of John F. Kennedy, taken in 1956 after JFK’s losing effort to win the Democratic nomination for Vice President, literally turns the idea of portraiture on its head. The image of Kennedy’s face is deeply woven into the American and world consciousness. Yet, with this picture, Frank makes us see the assassinated president anew. (It also hints at tantalizing “what ifs” of history.)

Then there is a goofy-looking, goofy-posing George Armstrong Custer in this ambrotype taken during his years at the West Point Military Academy, probably in 1859. You’d never know it was Custer since he doesn’t have his thick, shaggy moustache nor his long flowing blond hair. But, in this image, doesn’t Custer give a sense of the man who would become the fame-monger who would die, through his own stupidity, at the Battle of Little Big Horn?


An American face?

These three images are from Americans, a sturdy, well-designed paperback of nearly NPG ... american150 images from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. These were on exhibit at the end of 2002 and the start of 2003 at the British equivalent of the gallery — the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In his short forward to the book, John Updike begins: “Is there an American face?”

He can get away with asking it because he’s John Updike, but it’s a silly question. Within a family, there is often a common “face.” Think of the Kennedys.

Stillt, once you get beyond shared genes, it’s hard to argue that any group of people have a common look, and, if you pursue that line of thinking, you quickly end up talking in stereotypes — the physiognomy of Irish immigrants to the U.S. being compared to that of dogs, the anti-Semitic descriptions of Jews with hook noses.

Do the faces of O’Keefe, Kennedy and Custer have much in common?

How about Tallulah Bankhead, John Brown and Peggy Guggenheim?

Combo .... 2

Bankhead, a movie and stage actress, painted in 1930 by Augustus John, is lost in complicated thoughts. Brown, photographed by Augustus Washington in about 1846, appears to be swearing his loyalty to the abolitionist movement and wears the stern visage that would cut a swatch of violence until his failed attempt at a slave uprising 13 years later. Guggenheim, one of the great patrons and collectors of modern art, is seen in this 1924 Man Ray image in a slinky, suggestive Paul Poiret gown.



Portraiture isn’t about nationality or ethnicity or race — except the human race.

Even if you had photographs of five women in slinky, suggesting gowns, even the same gown, they were each be an individual. You might notice some commonalities, but it would be the irregularities that would stand out.

Consider rows of soldiers in uniform. The point of the uniform is to erase individuality, to support the mind-set that each soldier is an interchangeable piece in the larger mechanism of an army. Yet, can you look at a line of soldiers marching past and not see the differences? Some are taller. Some are thinner. Depending on the military tradition, some may have a moustache or a beard. Think of Custer. Think of U.S. Grant.

This is a book with images of more than 150 people, most by themselves but some in couples or larger groups. We have all seen images like these in our family photos although few of us would have pictures of such high quality, even high art.


A human life

Each image, though, whether in this book or in a family album, captures a human life at a single moment and contains in microcosm the story of that life.

combo ... 3

Take Edgar Degas’ painting of fellow painter Mary Cassatt from the 1880s. She didn’t like her pose and her seriousness, and didn’t want family or friends to see it. Sound familiar?

George Berkeley, in this painting by John Smibert from around 1727, was Irish-born and spent most of his life in England, but he lived in Rhode Island for a couple years, shortly after this painting was executed. Berkeley was an interesting guy. He’s the one who wrote the verses that were the clarion call of American Manifest Destiny: “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way.” He was also the philosopher who came up with the question of whether everything in the world outside the individual person — people, places, all things — actually exists. He contended that they could all be inside the mind of the one individual.

And then there’s the little girl, painted in 1870 by Edward Harrison May — the great American writer Edith Wharton.

The painting indicates her genteel upbringing, but, as Americans notes, it doesn’t hint at the emotional difficulties she endured as a deeply anxious child whose cold mother tried to squelch her writing efforts.

This image, the book points out, was made around the time “she invented the intensely active form of ‘making up’ that provided her with a retreat.”

From that talent — and that childhood — came The Age of Innocence and Warton’s other great writings.

Patrick T. Reardon

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