LYNN NEARY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
Portraiture is among the most persistent genres in art history. Fashions change in terms of style, from realism to abstract back to realism again, and they might change in terms of subject matter: Ruben's paintings of Spanish kings and queens to Van Gogh's Potato Eaters. But the fascination with the portrait doesn't go away. Take da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It still pulls on the imagination, leaving viewers wondering about the painter, his subject, and the time when they lived.
The newly renovated National Portrait Gallery opened a couple of weeks ago here in Washington, DC, to much fanfare and glowing reviews. It tells the story of America through its portraits, from our founding fathers to today's late-night talk show hosts.
Later in this hour, Robert Malley joins us to talk about the ongoing fight between Israel and Lebanon, and we'll have a conversation with the new prime minister of East Timor.
But first, portraits. What do they say about us? What portrait, famous or not so famous, most intrigues you and why? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery. So good to have you with us.
Mr. MARC PACHTER (Director, National Portrait Gallery): Oh, it's great to be here.
NEARY: How do portraits tell the story of America? So how do they tell our story?
Mr. PACHTER: Well, first of all, you have to believe that individuals matter, that by staring somebody in the face who has done an amazing thing and been portrayed in a certain way teaches us something about our lives, our society, and our culture. And, by the way, there are those who don't think that that's true; those who say, well, no, it's really all social forces and we're all pawns in the hands of fate, that sort of thing. Those people don't tend to like portraiture very much.
But those who feel that a face-to-face encounter with history by looking at the people who made those differences is the way to understand our common human heritage.
NEARY: Do you think to some degree portraiture might have gotten something of a bad name in some circles because it is this form of art where painters were hired to do a portrait of a society person or royalty or...
Mr. PACHTER: No question. No question. However, the question is when did it get a bad rap because that's in it? This was not an issue for Rembrandt. This was not an issue through even most of the 19th century. It was the 20th century where the idea that the artist was paramount as a sensibility, not part of a larger context, social and otherwise, where the notion of the artist as this supreme voice became important.
So, yes, if it's all about artists totally choosing the nature of what it is they present on canvas, in this case, then there is something somewhat awkward in the fact that they're in a negotiation with another human being about it. But if you think that actually that negotiation is one of the most interesting things about portraiture, then you become fascinated. It's a collaboration. No question about it.
NEARY: Well, I went over to the Portrait Gallery yesterday and was fascinated by the variety that is there under this rubric of the portrait.
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
NEARY: You have the Hall of the Presidents, you have the Stuart amazing portrait of Washington, to photographs of kids in the street in New York City.
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
NEARY: All of them fantastic.
Mr. PACHTER: Right. And, by the way, the thing that defines them, all those portraits, because you can go to any art museum or history museum, but mostly art museum, and see lots of pictures of people.
Mr. PACHTER: So are they all portraits? No. They're only portraits when it's about a particular person, one that actually existed to which the artist - to whom the artist is responding. Does that distinction make a difference?
NEARY: No, explain that a little bit more for me when you say...
Mr. PACHTER: Okay. Well, there are lots of pictures of women against a landscape painted in the 19th century impressionist, but we have no idea who that person is. The whole notion of a model is somebody whose individuality is lost in this broader symbolic portrayal. But the portrait is supposed to be describing a particular person, and so that particularity is either great or what is trivial about portraits, depending on your perspective.
Some cultures even, not just individuals, feel that looking at the individuality of people is their least important part. What is general about them, what they represent broadly, is the most important. But portraitists care about the wart on the nose. They care about the clothing worn. They care about that person's place in life at that moment, so it's particular, particular, particular.
NEARY: I should mention, by the way, that if you are interested following this conversation by looking at some of the portraits that are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, you can go to our Web site, and we do have some of those portraits on our Web site, npr.org. And it's npr.org, and then go to the TALK OF THE NATION Web site for that.
How would you say portraits have changed over the years?
Mr. PACHTER: Well, again, this question of the extent to which people believe in them within the elite, the cultural elite and generally. I think, generally, most people love to look at people. So I don't think portraits have ever been out of fashion in general.
And by the way, we tend to say portraits, and in people's mind pops up usually a painting, maybe a sculpture, but they don't really think of photographs as portraits. Of course they are. So, in a sense, photography has never lost its impact in both spheres.
But painted portraits, after photography itself showed up, began to make people wonder about them, because for a long time everybody said, well, it's about likeness. Oh, that's what George Washington looks like. But once photography is there, you either don't need the painted portrait anymore or the artist is free, and so you begin to have commentary in certain ways, particularly, self-conscious commentary.
And so, you know, all of these elements happen, but in the 20th century there is this separation. New York, which would be the heart of the received opinions about art, is going more and more abstract, is really wondering whether or not it really isn't trivial just to be looking at an individual.
And our heroes, and I suppose I should say heroine, although I think both words now should be one, our heroes now are people like Alice Neel, who is sitting in New York and sort of cursing a community that despises the portrait and is actually being much more radical by painting them and being realistic and being figurative and saying this matters. One of my favorite portraits - it may even be on your Web site - is Alice Neel painting herself naked at age 80 and really confronting you directly and saying this is who I am.
NEARY: Yeah, that is on our Web site, by the way.
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, great.
NEARY: And I forget the word that was used to describe it, but whatever that word was, it's appropriate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: I think it was an unflinching view of herself, an unflinching self-portrait, which it is indeed.
Mr. PACHTER: It is, and so it shows that there's a lot of courage in portraiture, potentially. Another reason that portraiture often seemed not as important an art form as others to 20th century critics, and 21st century, is that they worry about it being flattering; that it's just not that the artist has to negotiate with somebody else but that they have to lie about that person. And, in fact, portraits that are lies can be perceived by any visitors; they can see when it is just flattery, and I think just flattery can have appeal.
Sergeant basically flattered, and God those dresses look great, and boy those people look bigger than life - and Hollywood portraits, really photographs, flatter.
Mr. PACHTER: So there's a room for that, but we really - we moderns like it when it's unflinching. And actually in our portrait competition what strikes me as how modern it really is.
NEARY: All right, we're going to get to that portrait competition in a moment. I'd like to take a call right now. We've got Paul in Santa Clara, California on the line. Go ahead, Paul.
PAUL (Caller): Hi, you know you talk about portraits that lie, one of things that I wanted to talk about was - my favorite portrait artist is Cindy Sherman.
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, yes.
PAUL: And, you know, she took the (unintelligible) off of the portrait as a lie and really built the whole career out of doing portraits of herself in so many different persona.
Mr. PACHTER: You're so right. And she's dazzling, because, first of all, she takes the form seriously.
NEARY: Describe it if you could - one of you describe...
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, I think your listener should describe.
NEARY: Paul, perhaps you can describe it for those people who may not know - be familiar with Cindy Sherman's work.
Ms. PACHTER: Yes, what moves you about her?
PAUL: Well, she's a photographer, and she works in relatively large format, and that - first of all, just the technical achievement of her photos is really quite beautiful; the color's deeply saturated, and she takes pictures of herself in various costumes and in various styles of photography to sort of mimic archetypes of photography of woman in different environments.
Mr. PACHTER: Exactly.
PAUL: And sort of takes on these different roles.
Mr. PACHTER: And...
PAUL: It makes you look at the picture as - you know question both what you're looking at and the way you look at other pictures.
Mr. PACHTER: That couldn't be a more modern statement. And I think all of what we do in the 21st century portrait gallery is allow the questions about it. I'm perfectly happy to be asked does portraiture matter? Is it dead or alive? Because it engages people in this question of what's going on?
And the artists that play with it or challenge it are paying their own tribute to this form.
NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Paul.
PAUL: Hey, you're welcome. Thanks.
NEARY: And Paul also mentioned I think Diane Arbus, and she's a photographer. But one of the things that I noticed about contemporary portraits yesterday, when I was at the portrait gallery, was a kind of hyperrealism.
Mr. PACHTER: Yes.
NEARY: You were talking earlier about the fact that modern in this day and contemporary life we like to see the warts and all - and people really do show the warts and all in the contemporary portraits, they're so realistic. I found myself going up to some and them and saying, is this a photograph or is it a painting? And I had to look very closely and see that it was really paint.
Mr. PACHTER: Right. And actually the funny thing is that in the day of digital manipulation if we just talk about authenticity, the portraits are often more intensely accurate beyond the point of normal vision than photographs, which can now be manipulated tremendously. So if were just talking about is it really life? We don't even know in photographs. But in painted portraits that are hyper-real, it actually isn't real. It's hyper-real, it's a intensity of encounter that forces you to look. I think, in the end, all impressive art forces you to look.
And, again, that makes me a modern in the sense that while I enjoy the beautiful and have no problem being surrounded by things that put me at ease and make me realize the possibilities of beauty, I am riveted as a modern when I'm forced to look at things that I would not normally look at.
Not always in aversion, sometimes in fascination and embrace. The winner of the portrait competition is a perfect example of what you're talking about.
NEARY: And we're going to be talking to the winner of the portrait competition in just a little while, after we take a short break. We are talking about portraits and my guest is Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery.
We're talking portraits and what they show about our history and our identity, and we are talking your calls at 800-989-TALK. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Lynn Neary, its TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.
The word portrait brings to mind images of fancy outfits, formal poses, and oil on canvas, but that's not the whole picture. Portraits reflect their time, and we're talking about what these close-ups tell us about our history and ourselves. You can take a closer look at some of the images we're talking about at the TALK OF THE NATION page at our Web site, npr.org.
Our guest today is Marc Pachter, the director of the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington D.C. The gallery just reopened after a major renovation, and if you're going to be in Washington anytime soon I recommend a visit. And if you'd like to join our discussion now, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is email@example.com.
Does any one portrait stand out in your mind? And if so, why? And what do you think we can learn from portraits of yesterday? Right now we're going to talk with Jason Salavon, he is a Media Artist based in Chicago. He's one of five artists featured in the Portrait Gallery's Portraiture Now exhibit, and he joins us from our New York Bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JASON SALAVON (Media Artist): Hi.
NEARY: Jason we were talking before, I don't know if you heard it, but we were talking before about the fact that a lot of contemporary portraits are hyper-realistic. On the other hand, your piece on display at the Portrait Gallery, Late Night Triad, is not what I would describe as hyper-realistic. In fact, it's almost hard to see the people in this portrait; maybe you could describe it for us first.
Mr. SALAVON: Well, it's certainly ghostly. There are three separate panels -three separate video projections. And each one is a sort of representation of 64 nights of late night talk show monologues, and it's from the Letterman, Leno and Conan O'Brien shows. And these play for over three minutes, sort of showing more general structural scaffolding of these monologues and their performances. And I hope gives some character of the individual performative qualities of the characters being - the people being - whose portrait I'm doing.
NEARY: Ghostly is really a good word for it. Because as I was looking at these panels - when you first see it - I came in the middle, so I didn't actually know what I was seeing exactly. And then I realized - I recognized Jay Leno first, I have to say.
Mr. SALAVON: Mm-hmm.
NEARY: It must be his chin or something.
Mr. SALAVON: Mm-hmm.
NEARY: But then at one point I was looking at the Conan panel, and it was like he kept moving in and out of it; the others seemed a little more stationary but he really - his really had a sense of like a ghost moving in and out of his panel.
Mr. SALAVON: Well it's - each performer really has a different performative style and that would be hard to capture in, say, a single still. But when you sort of combine the 64 nights worth of the sort of repetition of the structure of the show the way things are cut, et cetera, they really do sort of show individual characters.
It's actually Leno who sort of the whirling dervish on stage and his character is the most sort of all over the stage, and Conan sort of locks in where you can actually even see individual features like his eyes and his nose. And it speaks to some extra element of their - I think of (unintelligible) the most performative portraits in that sense.
NEARY: How did you come to this kind of creation of a portrait?
Mr. SALAVON: I've been interested in sort of in information and looking at aggregates of portraits. So in contrast to other ways of producing a portrait, which are really about sort of the specific individual, I am interested in the aggregate a little bit more.
And so I tend to do - I write my own software to do these manipulations, and tend to be interested in how to take pattern and speak to some sort of more generalized idea. So the way of looking at that say Conan O'Brien, or Letterman or Leno, rather than looking at their individual likeness, it was more about how they behave over and over again night after night, how these shows are arranged, and looking at the sort of information, or the sort of what you could learn from the more generalized look at their performance styles.
NEARY: Marc Pachter?
Mr. PACHTER: What I love about what your work and one other instance I'm going to describe briefly is that it shows how new technologies as tools can add a dimension of meaning to portraiture that wasn't there before. What you can now do. And I was very struck by, once my sister museum, the American Art Museum, took about 40-something self portraits by William Johnson, who is a great African American artist who went mad over his career, no question about it.
And they morphed them from the first to the last, and you saw him going mad through this particular electronic strategy, and you could not have done it any other way. Had you seen them all in the same room it would not have had that effect. So this dimension that is now added is terribly exciting in portraiture.
NEARY: I should also mention that Jason Salavon's late night triad is also -you can view that on the TALK OF THE NATIONS Web site at npr.org. I have to say it's better experienced in person.
Mr. SALAVON: I'm glad you said that.
NEARY: Because it's a video, so it's hard to see - this one is hard to see on the Web site. But well worth going to our Web site to look at these portraits, all of them, and Jason's is there as well.
I'm - Jason is this something you've - is this the first portrait you've done this way or?
Mr. SALAVON: First one in video.
Mr. SALAVON: I've done other things similar with other types of portraiture. I'm really interested in high school class photographs where I did a project where I took my entire graduating high school class and my mother's entire graduating high school class, the men and women, and did separate sort of meta-portraits. And they actually resolved to blurry individuals, and yet you know it's this combination of hundreds of individual members of a graduating class.
And each of the panels, because were from - we're both from Ft. Worth, Texas, we - they speak to demographic shift, it speaks to just - these single photographs that are sort of meta-portraits speak to all sorts of things that photographing a individual might not speak to. And that tends to be you know where my work goes.
NEARY: All right. Lets take a call now from Kelly(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Kelly.
KELLY (Caller): Hi.
NEARY: Go ahead.
KELLY: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to call in and mention a book that I had read on a portrait painter, the (unintelligible) Portrait. I'm a painter myself and I've become a little disinterested in portraiture. And after I read that book, it was really amazing; it was a great description of the process and the relationship that develops between the painter and the subject. It was tedious and...
NEARY: Tell us the name of the book again...
KELLY: It's really a great book. I would suggest it to anybody that wants to get a firsthand look into what goes on.
NEARY: All right. What is the name of the book and author again?
KELLY: It was called the (unintelligible) Portrait, and I can't remember the name of the author. I'm sorry.
NEARY: But it dwelled mostly on the - I mean, it gave you some insight into the relationship between the artist and the subject.
KELLY: Mm-hmm, and the process that goes on between the two people, the conversation that they have and...
Mr. PACHTER: Right, any human relationship is fascinating.
KELLY: Yes, it was really great. And being a painter myself it was - it gave me a lot of insight.
NEARY: Thanks so much, Kelly.
KELLY: Thank you very much. Bye.
NEARY: I wonder if you can comment on that, Jason, the relationship between the artist and the artist subject?
Mr. SALAVON: Absolutely. I mean, I guess mine ends up being a little bit more of the artist and some sort of grouping of subjects.
NEARY: Mm-hmm, Mm-Hmm.
Mr. SALAVON: And looking at - and it's not just about the group for me, at least it's about maybe a tension between the individual - the individuals unique identity within the sort of group, whether you're part of a high school class or whether it's one monologue in a way it fits in with 64 others. There's this sort of interest in a little bit of that ambivalence and tension between those two things that maybe it typifies a little bit of modern life. The sort of idea of one's individual sort of unique identify and then how that fits into sort of the larger groups that ones a member of.
Mr. PACHTER: Is it...
NEARY: Go ahead, Marc.
Mr. PACHTER: Does, it - I was just going to say doesn't your talk show portraits depend on recognition? I mean, if you put those before an audience in Saudi Arabia who may not have access to international cable, would they respond the same way, or would they be as interested as Americans walking in? Because that connection - that prior connection redefines - excites a lot of visitors to the Portrait Gallery.
Mr. SALAVON: Right. I usually do assume some sort of sort of prior knowledge with the kinds of content I'm dealing with. And I actually showed the product in London, and while they kind of knew the people it was a little bit different. And they more had to sort of understand where we have our, you know, our late night analog that we sort recognize.
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
Mr. SALAVON: And understand this is the American version.
NEARY: Well, Jason, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. SALAVON: Thank you.
NEARY: Jason Salavon is a media artist based in Chicago and he joined us from our New York Bureau. And just to follow-up one more question on Jason's work, Marc Pachter. I would say, I mean Jason's work, which is, as we said, this video triptych of late night talk show hosts, is at sort of one end of the spectrum. And maybe the Hall of the Presidents is at the other end of the spectrum of the - the portrait gallery.
All together, you know, as you said, creating a conversation about our history and ourselves.
Mr. PACHTER: About our country, yes, about America. First of all, the question that the presidents are in the same gallery as talk show hosts is something that I'm occasionally challenged with. And it bewilders me, because is history not made of all of these various aspects of the expression of a culture. So they all belong in the same place.
The only question is how do we depict them? And the interesting thing is that both our greatest presidential portrait, the Lansdowne, is essence of Washington. And in a funny way, what Jason is doing is also essence.
Mr. PACHTER: They're not likeness, per say, they are the combined effect of these people. And it's interesting you can do it in these two ways. So I think there's a tremendous similarity, while the means are very different.
NEARY: All right. Let's take one more call from Lori(ph) in Sacramento, California. Hi Lori. Are you there?
LORI (Caller): Hi. Yes, thank you. I just wanted to comment on the portrait in the state capitol of California of Jerry Brown.
Mr. PACHTER: Mm-hmm.
LORI: And it is quite modern and quite a stark contrast to the other portraits.
Mr. PACHTER: It would be.
LORI: Exactly. And in taking my 12 year old nephew through the capitol, that portrait made him stop and ask a question: who was that man and why does he look different from all the other men that are hanging on the wall?
Mr. PACHTER: Will you come work for me?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PACHTER: That's exactly...
Mr. PACHTER: ...exactly it. A portrait needs to stop you. And different eras will stop in different ways and wonder about that individual. And as I just jumped in - Jerry Brown - I'm an original - originally a Californian, so I knew - I knew Jerry Brown.
LORI: You know the history. But, you know, it's a 12-year-old boy who had no knowledge of any sort of art...
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
LORI: ...beyond coloring books. You know, it made him stop and it provoked a very, I think, good conversation about governance and attitudes and, you know, as much as you can talk to a, you know, a 12 year old about these things. I just think it's the one portrait that stands out in my mind.
NEARY: Why - what makes it so different from the other ones? Is it just the contemporary nature of it? Is it that - is it a hyper-realistic kind of portrait that we've been talking about?
LORI: It's very abstract.
NEARY: Oh, okay.
LORI: And, you know, it's in a gallery - it's in a stairwell. It's in the west stairwell in the capitol, along with Ronald Reagan and Greg Davis and, you know, Deukmejian and Pat Brown, his father. And those are very staid, traditional portraits.
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
LORI: And here is this portrait that's bright blue and pink and yellow and orange. And it really makes you stop and think about it.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Lori.
LORI: You're welcome.
NEARY: Lori points up one other thing that I think we've been getting at, but this - but that I guess I was really struck by when I went to the National Gallery, which is - which is...
Mr. PACHTER: National Portrait Gallery.
NEARY: National Portrait Gallery, yes, the National Portrait Gallery - which is the variety of - that's there with portraits. And I do think that it is a - it is a genre that we tend to think of as just one thing.
Mr. PACHTER: Right. And if we're trying to explode any assumption, it's that. Not that portraits are the greatest form of art as opposed to something else. We're not in that conversation. We just want you to basically know that you do and don't know what a portrait can be.
NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And earlier, we mentioned the portrait competition, the Portrait Gallery's portrait competition. Joining us now is David Lenz and he is a painter based in Shorewood, Wisconsin. And he is the winner of that competition. He joins us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Congratulations and thanks for being with us.
Mr. DAVID LENZ (Painter, Winner, Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition): Thanks very much. Thank you.
NEARY: I don't even dare try and describe - maybe you could just describe your painting for us first.
Mr. LENZ: Sure, I'd be happy to. The scene is based on the view from a piece of property that my family and I own in south central Wisconsin. It's overlooking a glorious valley of rolling hills going back into space. Sort of like what you would typically think of a Grant Wood kind of landscape: idealized farms, a little road going back into space.
And it's a bright summer day. And over - hanging over this idealized pastoral landscape is the big, warm ball of the sun. And surrounding the sun is a halo, which is an actual atmospheric phenomenon that occurs from time to time. It's quite rare actually.
And then, in the foreground, this pastoral landscape is a lot of green hills. And then contrasting with those green hills is a portrait of my son Sam, who's in the lower right-hand corner. Sam has Down Syndrome, and he is standing there with a red shirt on, and so contrasting with the background very vividly.
And he's leaning in towards the viewer with kind of a quizzical look on his face. The sun is kind of hitting the corner of his eye. He's kind of squinting because of the sun, almost looks like he's winking at you, but he's not. He's squinting because of the sun.
NEARY: And the name of...
Mr. LENZ: And his mouth...
NEARY: I was just going to say, the name of this, because you just mentioned Sam, is - because people need to hear this now that you've described it - Sam and the Perfect World.
Mr. LENZ: Right, right. And so his mouth is ajar and it looks like he's just about to say something to you. And so, in my view, it sort of takes the traditional view of people with disabilities as being someone that should be living on the margins of society and it kind of turns it on its head and says Sam is - he has a disability, but yet he has something to say. And he's portrayed as being thoughtful and perhaps even with some answers for society. And whatever he's going to say, the viewer can fill in the blank.
NEARY: And you call yourself...
Mr. LENZ: (unintelligible) which I like.
NEARY: You describe yourself as a social realist painter.
Mr. LENZ: Yeah, I like that term because I like to think that my paintings are kind of imbued with a whole variety of social issues. And we can touch on those if you like. But yeah, realist in the basic sense of the word. I try to make my paintings look like real life, although they are a highly manipulated form of reality.
Some people say, well, they look photographs, but there wasn't anyone photograph that looked anything like what I ended up with in this painting. So every little detail is manipulated and massaged and the colors are changed and everything is fixed just to get to the end that I'm looking for.
NEARY: And were you surprised that you won? I'm just curious. Were you surprised that you won?
Mr. LENZ: Oh yes, I was very surprised. Who would have thought?
NEARY: Let me ask Marc Pachter, because we're running out of time, unfortunately, but what - what was it about this particular portrait, Marc Pachter, that it rose above the rest of the competition?
Mr. PACHTER: Well, first of all, we didn't want to talk about it. We all were drawn to it. So the notion that it happens at a visceral level before you start analyzing it. And there were, I think, seven jurors. And we quarreled about almost everything else except this one.
So, in some ways, we didn't over-talk this. We just said this moves us. We want to know. We want to enter into a conversation with this young man, Sam. We also thought there was something humane in it without being sentimental. We thought the oversized sun said something. We weren't quite sure what. And by the way, we noticed things that may have been just accurate, which is that there is a fence between Sam and that perfect world.
Mr. LENZ: Oh yes. Oh yes.
NEARY: All right. I'm afraid we've run out of time for this discussion, which has been a fascinating discussion. David Lenz, thanks so much and congratulations for winning that competition.
Mr. LENZ: Thank you very much.
NEARY: And Marc Pachter, so good to have you with us. Marc Pachter is the director of the National Portrait Gallery. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.