By Riley Fink
Visiting the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery today, it was great to see a mix of famous figures from all sectors of culture collide in works of art.
The top level of the building showcased a number of works of famous comedians and entertainers, in an arrangement entitled “Bravo!” Portraits and busts of these legendary individuals lined the balconies. From P.T. Barnum to Leonard Bernstein to Grace Kelly, a huge amount of entertainment’s most important figures are recognized. Walking through and reading about the impact each person had on his or her own field filled me with a great appreciation for their craft. Seeing a sort of “Greatest Hits” of entertainment was undeniably enthralling. The evolution of performing arts is shown right before your eyes, and viewing each icon one after the other lends a serious magnitude to it all.
An adjacent section on the top floor balconies highlighted great figures throughout sports history. A number of sports greats are given the spotlight, though I admittedly was disappointed that Vince Lombardi didn’t have a bust. Otherwise, this collection’s dynamic portraits of vivid motion were stunning to look at.
Of course, the “America’s Presidents” portion of the museum was perhaps the most popular exhibition. Purportedly, this is the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. A timeline of every president, minus Obama, was on display. Ambling throughout this segment, it was certainly interesting to see which presidents received more attention than others, either through a large number of pieces or artwork created on an overall grander scale. Andrew Jackson, despite the reputation he has today, was heavily featured. Others, like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR were also very prominent. Additionally, for many modern-age presidents, video clips of speeches were shown to add another layer of depth to the presidential artwork. The chronological nature of it all certainly made think about the space President Obama’s and President-elect Trump’s portraits would occupy.
The segment entitled “20th Century Americans” put works of cultural and political leaders of the 20th Century at the forefront. Viewing this exhibit allows many of the most important events and figures from the 20th Century to come to life. This part was especially compelling to me, as it featured both cultural and political magnates together in one showcase. All of them had their own impact on the previous century, in so many different ways, so witnessing an amalgamation of all of it was especially dramatic. Poets like Allen Ginsberg and E.E. Cummings were featured alongside Bobby Kennedy. LL Cool J was presented in tandem with Bill and Melinda Gates. Even then-General Eisenhower was featured once more, for his role as a five-star general in World War II, like his presidency, left a large mark on the 20th Century.
This museum is a walk through the history of the United States, from a fully integrated and merged cultural and political perspective. The intermingling of all aspects of society are clearly recognized here, showing the United States from a perspective that acknowledges its diverse history.