U.S. History: From Portraits to Selfies

The+photo%2C+from+%E2%80%9CAmerican+Flags+of+Faces+Exhibit%E2%80%9D+in+Ellis+Island%2C+is+also+the+front+cover+of+Saunders%E2%80%99+new+book.

The photo, from “American Flags of Faces Exhibit” in Ellis Island, is also the front cover of Saunders’ new book.

By YVETTE YINUO SHI, Arts & Sciences Editor

Imagine a museum exhibition that not only amazes, inspires and entertains you along every step, but also challenges you with questions and ideas posed by every meticulously selected work of art. The latest exhibit at our very own museum, American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity, which opened on Feb. 17, guarantees viewers a fulfilling experience of such with more than 90 pieces that broaden the definition of American portraiture.

Richard Saunders, director of the College Museum of Art, is the curator of American Faces and the author of a recently published book with the same title. In an interview on Sunday, which was suitably turned into a tour of the entire exhibit, Saunders explained his long-term fascination with American portraits and identity. He has been interested in portraits since he was in college, and wrote his dissertation in graduate school on a portrait artist. Unable to find a good book about portraiture to assign to students in his classes, Saunders put years of his work into his own book.

According to Saunders, the exhibit is a “distilled version of the book.”

“The idea is that the Americans have been interested in creating images of themselves for hundreds of years, and so I was interested in why,” he said. “So I thought, well, can I break that down into groups? Can I create, as I’ve described this as a rudimentary taxonomy, a system to look at all this?”

To answer these questions, the exhibit is divided into seven sections, based around the same seven chapters in the book that bring out different themes and stories. The one hour of my first visit to the opening felt  like barely enough to absorb the wide variety of the pieces selected; from oil-on-canvas paintings and daguerreotype to caricature and videos, the exhibit could be somewhat overwhelming, and requires close attention and active thinking from the viewer.

“That’s why the [label] texts are so long,” Saunders said in response to this observation. “I felt that it was important to do that, because otherwise people wouldn’t understand necessarily why something was here. I hope people get it. It’s like anything; you try and throw it out there, and see if people are interested.”

The first section of the exhibit, titled “The Rich,” starts us off with more traditional oil-on-canvas paintings, mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, which were commissioned by wealthy people. People’s desire to showcase social status, wealth and fashion is apparent throughout the colonial period and into the first decades of the Republic.

“Many of these people are being flattered through the portraits,” Saunders said. “The idea was to make them look better. It’s like the ultimate Donald Trump experience.”

He pointed out that Trump once said he saw a 35-year-old when looking in the mirror, while the president was also dissatisfied with a painting of his 35-year-old self.

“I’d like one of [my students] to work on images of Donald Trump, because he has such an ego and a focus on his own [image],” Saunders said.

The portraits hanging on the wall from two centuries ago seem not so cut off from the present; in fact, they are so immediately related to our media world today, whether personal or political.

In the next section, “Portraits for Everyone,” two pieces on loan from the Andy Warhol Museum bring the audience to a new era of portraiture and identity. Saunders emphasized the importance of Warhol’s portrait of Ethel Scull, an art collector, which is one panel of a huge commissioned portrait consisting of 35 more of such pieces.

“He wasn’t interested in doing paintings like that,” Saunders said, pointing at the oil paintings from the former section. “So this is really important, in terms of telling how commissioned portraits by wealthy people changed in 1963 when he did this.”

The borrowing of this piece in part led to the installation of an actual photo booth in the exhibition, placed among other works of art.

“The photograph, on which this [Ether Scull painting] is based, was taken in a photo booth exactly like that,” Saunders said, highlighting the importance of the machine in impacting mainstream American painting.

As an interactive element of the exhibit, the photo booth allows visitors to take four black-and-white snapshots for free (despite the vintage words painted outside that indicate a 25-cent fee).

“Fame” brings together works of different media that look at famous people. “Images of celebrities have been gradually replacing portraits of heroes,” reads the section note. Across the wall printed with a large image of LeBron James hangs Constantino Brumidi’s “The Apotheosis of Washington” (1859), which is a preliminary work of the Capitol dome in Washington D.C.’s interior painting, depicting George Washington surrounded by holy figures in the clouds. Saunders commented that the Capitol dome is probably the most “hallow shrine” in this country, in which “Washington has become a god.”

“He’s moved on from being a real person,” he said. “He’s the embodiment of ideas and American beliefs about being noble, being moral and being patriotic.”

Walking towards the fourth section called “Propaganda,” Saunders explained that no portraits are accidental, and there is always a reason why a portrait is made. A number of the works included are political, including a Warhol painting in 1972 commissioned by the Democrats to create a negative portrayal of Richard M. Nixon, a more recent political caricature “Who Does He Think He Is” (2008) by Pat Oliphant depicting Barack Obama and a small TV looping the first televised presidential debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon.

“This is about the obvious use of portraits for different agendas, for selling you an idea, or a product, or a political belief,” Saunders said. “It’s all about control, about image.”

The fifth section, “Self and Audience,” was, according to Saunders, the part he felt most challenged by in the curating process. Again, he attempted to showcase the long history of artists making self-portraits with a wide variety of works, along with ideas of the intended audiences for the portraits. Included in the section is C. Zimmerman’s panoramic photograph, “Women of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“[This photograph is about] an allegiance of a group that most people would find awful,” he said. “But these people certainly cared about being identified with that group.”

He pointed out that most of the people in these group portraits seem to be happy and proud to be part of the group.

“It’s about issues of identity. We all want to figure out where we fit into something, and connect to things that we care about and believe in.”

The section also includes more contemporary works, such as “Genetic Self-Portrait: Hair,” which is a hair’s image under a microscope, and a “Name Self-Portrait (with Beethoven),” on which the artist Gene Beery identifies with Beethoven through mere words and no image.

“Ritual, Power, and Memory” combines the ideas of monuments and memorials.

“This whole section really is about how we remember people, and how we use their lives to tell other narratives or establish beliefs that we feel are important,” Saunders said.

One of the most intriguing works displayed is a collection of postmortem portraits from 1850-75, which are small images of deceased people. Saunders is fascinated by how Americans have a hard time talking about death, though taking these images was a very popular thing to do back then.

“Most  of these people were probably never recorded in painting, particularly the little babies who died, and infant mortality was enormously high,” he said. “So this was a way to honor them and to remember them.”

The other side of the section is devoted to public monuments and the breaking down of them in cases of people rejecting the power, both acknowledging the abundance of life-size bronze statues of celebrities in the U.S. and the ways in which they resonate with the public.

The exhibit ends in the center, where the seventh section titled “Gallery” offers the audience a resounding conclusion. “Portrait of Stephen Colbert” is likely to catch the audience’s attention immediately, with its unorthodox composition of portraits within a portrait. Saunders argues that the piece is “a satire of formal portraiture.”

“It’s funny in one regard, very funny,” he said. “But also I think it’s symbolic too, about the seriousness with which people take images.”

Lastly, Saunders discussed a painted portrait of John M. McCardell, Jr., President of the College from 1991 to 2004. The painting was commissioned by the College, and normally hangs in the Board Room in Old Chapel, along with portraits of all other former presidents.

“The idea is that Middlebury [College] dates back to 1800, and the board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility to care for this institution and make sure it’s preserved and succeeds and thrives,” Saunders said. “By surrounding [the place] by all the people that kept it going, it sends a message, and it kind of underscores the decisions that are being made.”

It is Saunders’ hope that viewers can understand the importance and value of these carefully analyzed portraitures and the whole reason behind American people’s fascination with them. He attributes this particular reason to the founding of the U.S. as a country of immigrants where, for a lot of the people, their heritages are traced to other places. For Saunders, the idea that connects portraits with hierarchy in Great Britain, where some of the first groups were coming from, is mixed with the Americans’ values on individual success.

“It’s all based on identity, and how we view collective identity and individual identity,” Saunders said. “We talk about selfies as being different, and I don’t think selfies are different at all. I think they are just part of a continuum of lots of different things in world we’ve already been doing. It’s just the latest phenomena.”