National Portrait Gallery, Real and Fiction: a “Presidential” Portrait

Amy Henderson
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Jonathan Yeo, Kevin Spacey as ‘President’ Frank Underwood (2016). National Portrait Gallery

The 2016 presidential campaign has evaporated the blurry distinction between “real” and “virtual” that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin railed against in his classic 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. At the time, Boorstin was furious about how Madison Avenue advertisers—the Mad Men who were engulfing the media with consumerism–and a television system then-dominated by a three-network monopoly, had created a culture based on “illusions that we mistake…for reality.” (Boorstin, 5-6). xxxxx

Boorstin argued that these Twentieth Century confluences had spun a web of “synthetic novelty” that celebrated “pseudo-events,” or happenings that placed a priority on “newsworthiness” rather than “reality.” The key element guiding the rise of this transformation was the importance of “the image,” which had emerged in the Graphic Revolution of the late Nineteenth Century. The image facilitated the rise of fame as a product of fabricated “well-knownness”: instead of a product of grand heroic deeds, “fame” in the Twentieth Century was rooted in a culture of personality. Being famous was the purview of someone who a “celebrity,” or “a person who is known for his well-knownness.”  The celebrity figure, Boorstin harangued, was nothing more than “a human pseudo-event.”  (47, 57).

Right: Rosemarie Sloat, Ethel Merman as ‘Annie’ (1971), oil and acrylic on canvas. Naional Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Ethel Merman.

The relevance of Boorstin’s observations about blurring real and virtual culture has blossomed in the social media age, where the disruptive innovations that have swept through technology and the entertainment industries have now been injected into presidential politics. The National Portrait Gallery has recently showcased this phenomenon with all the ballyhoo at its disposal, unveiling a portrait of Netflix’s ‘President Frank Underwood’ (Kevin Spacey), with all the pomp and circumstances normally reserved for the vernissage of an actual presidential portrait.

The National Portrait Gallery is the only official site outside of the White House with a complete collection of presidential portraits. It also has a strong collection of actors portrayed in roles that made them famous, such as Ira Aldridge in Othello and Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun. These two collecting strands came together about a year ago, when Gallery curators spotted a fascinating portrait on view in NPG-London of actor Kevin Spacey as Richard III. The portrait was by Jonathan Yeo, one of the leading British artists www.artesmagazine.comof his generation (b. 1970). Yeo has painted such iconic figures as Prince Phillip, Malala, and Tony Blair; his 2013 exhibition at NPG-London was highly-acclaimed and accompanied by a BBC1 special.

Left: Jonathan Yeo, Self-portrait

Spacey, an American actor whose distinguished career includes two Oscars, a Golden Globe, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, was artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre from 2004 to 2015. Since 2013, he has starred as President Frank Underwood in Netflix’s political drama, House of Cards. The record-breaking “streaming” popularity of this series prompted NPG Director Kim Sajet to note that public fascination with this series “reflects the changing way in which people consume media” (Quoted in Jonathan Yeo’ website).

Right: Artist, Jonathan Yeo and Kevin Spacey, with portrait of ‘President,’ Frank Underwood.

NPG curators approached Yeo about portraying Spacey as Underwood for the Gallery’s collection, and both artist and actor responded enthusiastically. In House of Cards, Spacey plays Underwood as a scheming rascal who is also somehow entrancing; the actor’s intention has been to create a character that breaks through the Fourth Wall to entice the audience into a sense of complicity with Underwood’s machinations. For Yeo, this sense of breaking-through was particularly challenging: the artist wanted to capture “both Spacey’s portrayal and some of his (own) actual character on the canvas.” In an interview, Yeo www.artesmagazine.comtold me that in this portrait, Keven Spacey “is giving a performance—it’s about 80% Frank Underwood and 20% Kevin Spacey” (telephone interview, 2/25/16).

Left: George Healy, Abraham Lincoln (1869). Collection, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Asked if the portrait was a caricature or a serious portrait, Yeo said that it was partly serious, partly a caricature, but essentially a depiction of Keven Spacey as a larger-than-life pantomime villain. The six foot-square canvas is painted with broad strokes that convey a “dark humor.”  Spacey-as-Underwood is seated, like NPG’s portraits of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy; Yeo hinted that this portrait was both a “slight send-up of more famous portraits” and an to capture the sense of “legacy” that other presidential portraits convey.

Right: Elaine De Kooning, John F Kennedy (1963). National Portrait Gallery.

As it is currently displayed at the Portrait Gallery, the painting is almost a confrontation between sitter-and-viewer. Spacey/Underwood eyes visitors from a slightly raised pedestal position; there is a kind of brutality about him—his right hand is clenched and one foot is poised as if to STOMP.  But there is also something engaging that happens between sitter and viewer: Yeo has forged character that, however shameless, manages to instill viewers with a willing sense of complicity.

That “Reality TV” is playing a center-stage role in the 2016 presidential campaign has cast Kevin Spacey’s portrait as President Frank Underwood into even greater prominence than originally intended. As Jonathan Yeo recently mused, presenting this portrait at this moment is a prime example of “art imitating art.” In whatever medium, “reality” is up for grabs.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian in Washington, DC

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