Through the eyes of presidents

There’s something about the National Portrait Gallery that draws me back. I wouldn’t say its my favorite museum, but something about how this ornate masonic building stands across from the Verizon Center in the heart of China Town appeals to my appreciation of odd juxtapositions, perhaps. There’s something ironic about the nation’s most complete collection of presidential portraits hanging in posterity just steps away from a movie theatre bustling with teenagers who could give a crap.

So while you’re surrounded by neon, street vendors and the din of traffic outside, step inside and you’re in a totally different world, in a totally different story.

The way the presidential portrait exhibit is laid out is predictable. God forbid Franklin Pierce show his face before John Adams. But you realize as your giving each former leader a good look-over, that the detail grows as you make your way from the Founding Fathers to the presidents many Americans living today can remember first-hand. Meaning, the story starts as a more stoic portrayal of a president’s life. You see half-painted George Washington…an attempt that took the painter hours, then in the next room you take in a pop art Andy Warhol-esque photo arrangement of President Clinton. Time moved on, mediums changed and artists gained more access to the presidents, their families and their lives outside the White House.

There is clearly more exhibit space created for the latest presidents. Abraham Lincoln’s cracked plate portrait is the only real shift away from the classic oil paints that fill the first room. But the story changes as the visitor enters the second room. Documentaries of President Bill Clinton and President Ronald Reagan play in the background, the works are far more colorful and expressive. You can tell many artists were far more interested in capturing the caricature¬†of the president than attempting to capture his likeness. You can tell America was still in love with the highest office, but individual expression took the place of historical portraits especially as the office moved into the middle of the twentieth century.

The exhibit tells the story of the country’s admiration for the men who led and the office they upheld. The story begins as more of a distant appreciation of the figureheads that were so widely respected, as if they were royalty. The story opens up with a change in the way the country sees its leaders. Americans departed from viewing the president as an untouchable dignitaries. Instead, they were portrayed as real men, with flaws and quirks that artists at the time wanted to explore. Finally, the story ends in the final few administrations which are arguably over-criticized and over-covered. There are multiple mediums including sound, video, sculpture, slides and paintings that capture the president, his family, his past-times and his toughest decisions with unparalleled and intimate access.

Leaving the exhibit, I can’t help but feel I’ve gained a new perspective. Stepping back out into China Town and its color, you realize how much leadership, creativity and free will it took toto get us to this point in society and that the story will continue.

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10 2011

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