By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer
All incumbent presidents from Warren G. Harding to Barack Obama have had their portraits, photographs, likenesses or caricatures printed on the cover of Time Magazine. The exhibit “From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” at the Portrait Gallery selects a few of these to illustrate how each was portrayed and viewed by the public during their presidency.
This small exhibit of 32 Time covers including photographs, collages, paintings and sculpture spans one hallway that separates parts of the 20th Century Americans Gallery. Though it is brief, and does not include all of the presidential covers of Time, the collection packs a punch. Each cover, or original art used for the cover, is intriguing and provides a window into public opinion and concern for the time they represent.
As you approach the exhibit, you are confronted with a photo illustration from Nov 24, 2008: Obama’s face and hands superimposed on an old photograph of FDR in his convertible, cigarette hanging from his smiling and confident mouth. This image creates initial confusion, seeming to be simply a play on the title of the exhibition. However, by looking to the left and see a copy of the issue and the title “The New New Deal” and reading the explanation of the image, story and note about the 44th president, you come to understand the image.
The exhibit is well laid out except for the panels in the center that hid the artwork hung on either side of them rather than showcasing them. It is easy to miss the sculpture in the center of the hallway and the cover art on the panels. This is frustrating, especially in an exhibit so dependent on the chronology of the covers.
Since FDR, every president has been “Man of the Year” at least once. This fact is surprising when first read, however, every president is a symbol of hope at some point in his career. The award was created in 1927 and FDR was the first president to be awarded the honor. Other Presidents have won multiple times, Obama being the most recent, winning in 2008 the year of his election.
Presidents do not have to be “Man of the Year” to get on the cover. Richard Nixon leads the number of appearances with 55 and Ronald Regan follows with 46. Nixon has four pieces in the exhibit, the covers from November 1968 when he was elected, January 1972 when he won “Man of the Year,” January 1973 when he shared the award with Henry Kissinger and April 1973 addressing the Watergate scandal.
The exhibit is well-balanced between idyllic portraits and inspiring depictions of presidents as symbols of hope or strength and caricatures and satirical images criticizing or questioning the leaders of our nation. FDR and Harry Truman are the only two presidents to only have one cover in the exhibit; the other eleven presidents have at least two and show both the support of and anger with each president.
“From FDR to Obama” has excellent wall text that addressed the cover art itself as well as the events that inspired it and the president’s actions. This nugget of an exhibit hidden on the second floor in a hallway of the National Portrait Gallery provides a reflective look at America’s relationships with our presidents. While we may remember a presidency for one event or with one emotion, this exhibit shows us that all presidents are loved at one point, they all make mistakes, and each presidency is a rollercoaster of political and personal events. This chronicle of public opinion show should be visited by history lovers and presidential enthusiasts but also by any American citizens curious about how we portray our political leaders.
“From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” is open until Sep 26, 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery. Admission is free. Visit http://npg.si.edu/ for information about the museum and the exhibit.