Haven't you often looked at portraits in a museum and felt that you couldn't appreciate them adequately because you were not familiar with their subjects? This barrier has been removed in the exhibit entitled "Famous Likeness" that has just opened across the Charles at the Institute of contemporary Art and will continue through August 13.
The 25-year-old Institute has assembled 34 portraits of 32 subjects by 30 noted workers in painting, sculpture, and graphic art. The result is by far the finest exhibit the Institute has yet offered in its new quarters as the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center.
All but a handful of the items date from after World War I. And most 20th-century portraiture tries to achieve far more than surface realism. Yet these examples are especially gratifying because they depict subjects most of whose looks and work and character are quite familiar to us--Freud, Hemingway, Toscanini, Shaw, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Gertrude Stein, Nehru, Einstein.
The proportion of masterly works in this exhibit is phenomenally high. But one can learn much even from the few failures--such as Marino Marini's heads of Stravinsky and Nelson Rockefeller and Gerhard Marck's Adenauer, all of which lack character and sufficient vraisemblance.
The Variety of techniques is astonishingly wide. With great economy, Josef Scharl captures Einstein wonderfully (see cut), Ben Shahn gets the rough ruggedness of Hemingway, and Arthur Okamura the glowering violence of Toscanini.
On the other hand, Marguerite Zorach spent three years embroidering in Brueghelian detail and enormous panorama of the whole John D. Rockefeller Family at summer play. And Kokoschka gave us a whole multicolored symbolic tradition behind the central figure of Thomas Masaryk.
How much some artists can convey just in the eyes! Look at the torment in Sweden's greatest dramatist, Strindberg, as Norway's greatest artist, Edvard Munch, captured it; or the intensity in Shahn's Freud; or the burning glance of Stuart Davis' James Joyce; or the clown's proverbial subdued sadness in Loren Maclver's Emmett Kelly.
Three "Time" Covers
Since Time magazine helped round up this exhibit, there are three examples of its cover portraits. On a light blue background, Bernard Buffet showed us a lined and ascetic Charles de Gaulle. In a departure from his usual semi-abstractionism, Rufino Tamayo outlined the face of Mexican President Lopez Mateos on green and red, as seen through a white Milky Way, Andrew Wyeth did a vapid semi-profile of Dwight Eisenhower that reflects the subject more closely than the painter realized.
The institute has published a splendid catalogue, well researched and written by Suzanne Foley, Caroline Zinsser, and Francis Brennan, and available for only a dollar. Every work in the exhibit is reproduced, with appropriate commentary--the whole introduced by an essay on the history and peculiar problems of portraiture.
Three of the reproductions are in color. Eisenhower is one. Willem de Kooning's polyschizoid Marilyn Monroe is another, into which much can be read. The catalogue ends with the aggressive reds, oranges, and yellows of Karel Appel's Dizzy Gillespie, in which one can hear the searing screams of the trumpeter's high F. It would be hard to think of a better bargain than this publication; it well merits a permanent place on one's shelves.