May 17, 2013
Fifty years ago on May 17, 1963, TIME magazine put James Baldwin on the cover with the story “Birmingham and Beyond: The Negro’s Push for Equality.” And to create his portrait, the weekly called on artist Boris Chaliapan. Baldwin’s intense eyes and pensive expression stared out from newsstands across the country.
“Chaliapan,” explains National Portrait Gallery curator Jim Barber, “tried to capture the essence of a person and their personality.” Though the magazine had contracts with a dozen or so other cover artists, Chaliapan was part of the prominent threesome dubbed the “ABC’s” with artists Boris Artzybasheff and Ernest Hamlin Baker. Known for his spot-on likenesses, Chaliapan could also be counted on for a quick turnaround. “Unlike the other cover artists that needed a week or two, Chaliapan…if pressed, he could crank out covers in two or three days,” says Barber.
Over his nearly 30 year career with TIME, Chaliapan produced more than 400 covers and earned the nickname “Mr. TIME.” He portrayed the day’s biggest stars and helped illustrate each week’s cover story with a fresh portrait.
Born in Russia, Chaliapan trained as an artist there before journeying to Paris, France to continue his education. Eventually making his way to the United States, he found work with TIME magazine and in 1942 produced his first cover for them of a WWII general. Chaliapan often worked from photographs to create his covers, made with watercolors, tempera, pencil and other materials. Other than his speed and technical skill, Chaliapan was known for his portraits of beguiling starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.
From the National Portrait Gallery’s more than 300 Chaliapan covers, Barber selected 26 for a new exhibit, “Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapan,” opening Friday, May 17. “I wanted to show Chaliapan’s entire career,” says Barber.
By the end of that career, painted portraits were on their way out for magazine covers. Photographs and more thematic illustrations were being used more frequently. Chaliapan’s covers capture a snapshot of the news from days gone by, but also of the news industry itself. His final cover was of President Nixon in 1970.
“Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapan” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 5, 2014.
May 10, 2013
As someone who adores sequins and feathers, I am buzzing with anticipation over what the New York Times has dubbed “an eminently enjoyable movie,” Baz Lurhmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby. Will I like Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Will Jay-Z’s music convey the fancy-free spirit of High Flapperdom?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age” in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. He also became its effervescent chronicler in his early novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), along with another short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (1920). Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was the quintessence of this period of his work, and evoked the romanticism and surface allure of his “Jazz Age”—years that began with the end of World War I, the advent of woman’s suffrage, and Prohibition, and collapsed with the Great Crash of 1929—years awash in bathtub gin and roars of generational rebellion. As Cole Porter wrote, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking,/But now God knows,/Anything Goes.” The Twenties’ beat was urban and staccato: out went genteel social dancing; in came the Charleston. Everything moved: cars, planes, even moving pictures. Hair was bobbed, and cigarettes were the new diet fad.
According to his biographer Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald wrote his agent Maxwell Perkins in 1922: “I want to write something new. . .something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.” Like today, newness was fueled by innovation, and technology was transforming everyday life. Similar to the way social media and the iPhone shape our culture now, the Twenties burst with the revolutionary impact of silent movies, radio and recordings. New stars filled the mediascape, from Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, to Paul Whiteman and the Gershwins. Celebrity culture was flourishing, and glamour was in.
Accompanied in a champagne-life style by his wife Zelda, the embodiment of his ideal flapper, Fitzgerald was entranced by the era’s glitz and glamour. His story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he admitted, was designed “in the familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury.” By the time he wrote Gatsby, his money revels were positively lyrical: when he describes Daisy’s charm, Gatsby says: “Her voice is full of money,” and the narrator Nick explains, “That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jungle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
Fitzgerald acknowledges the presence of money’s dark side when Nick describes Tom and Daisy: “They were careless people—they smashed things up. . .and then retreated back into their money. . .and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” But his hero Gatsby is a romantic. He was a self-made man (his money came from bootlegging), and illusions were vital to his world view. Fitzgerald once described Gatsby’s ability to dream as “the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
Gatsby sees money as the means to fulfilling his “incorruptible dream.” When Nick tells him, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby is incredulous: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” (Cue green light at the end of the dock: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into time.”) As critic David Denby recently wrote in his New Yorker review of the Luhrmann film: “Jay Gatsby ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,’ and his exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures.”
It was the American Dream on a spree. Fitzgerald ends Gatsby intoning his dreamlike vision of the Jazz Age: “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And one fine morning—”
April 23, 2013
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
April 5, 2013
How better to celebrate April Fool’s Day among scholars than to parse, deconstruct, reconsider and otherwise dismantle a subject rarely considered. This year Smithsonian curators, historians and researchers assembled at the National Museum of American History to take part in the annual (well, sometimes) “Conference on Stuff.” In the past, we’ve considered the marshmallow, Jell-O, corn, crackers, peanut butter and pie. This year, our subject was grease.
I was drawn instantly by the spirit of “dedicated hilarity” and volunteered to make a presentation on “greasepaint”—a pig fat concoction originally invented as a makeup base for actors, but one that has since morphed into a cosmetic industry that grosses an estimated $170 billion dollars annually.
For those of you who missed my talk “Greasepaint Glamour,” providing both intellectual gravitas and an excuse to fluff up and wear my boa, I will share now with my adoring online fans.
The tradition of face-painting extends as far back as the advent of image creation. Ancient Egyptians rimmed their eyes with kohl—a mixture of lead, copper, burned almonds, and soot—to ward off evil spirits; they also used a type of rouge to stain their lips and cheeks—a stain made from a deadly combination of iodine and bromine that gave us the phrase, “kiss of death.”
Historically, pale skin was a status symbol of upper class fashion, meant to distinguish women who spent their lives indoors rather than out in the fields. Elizabeth I coated her face with white lead and vinegar, optimistically intending to evoke a “Mask of Youth.” In the 19th century, Queen Victoria went bare-faced and declared makeup was something only worn by loose women or actors, neither of which category included Her Royal Highness. Leading actors of the American stage such as Joseph Jefferson—known for his role as Rip Van Winkle—and singer Lillian Russell wore makeup composed of an unappetizing mixture of zinc oxide, lead, mercury, and nitrate of silver.
At the turn of the 20th Century, a theatrical cosmetic based on pig fat (lard) was invented in Germany: known as “grease paint,” it was a flesh-colored paste that combined lard with zinc and ochre and gave actors a less garish, more natural appearance onstage.
With the advent of moving pictures, the demand for makeup burgeoned with the rise of the “close-up” as actors scrambled to cover flaws and enhance their most attractive facial features. Makeup also had to stand up to the powerful new lighting technology invented for filmmaking, and because black and white film stock didn’t register all colors accurately (red looked black on screen, for example), actors had to wear a green-tinged arsenic makeup that looked “natural” once projected onscreen.
Arsenic makeup’s side-effects were dangerous, but Polish immigrant Max Factor soon came to the rescue. Factor arrived in Los Angeles with his family in 1904, and by the time the movie industry began its migration from New York to “Hollywood” in the early teens, he had set up shop as a wig-maker and a makeup artist. In 1914, Factor invented “flexible greasepaint”—a makeup in a tube that revolutionized movie cosmetics because it reflected well under movie lighting. Happily, it also didn’t contain anything that could poison actors.
Flexible greasepaint was applied with a wet sponge and then “set” with powder; Factor went on to devise a “color harmony” palette that individualized makeup for such stars as Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford. He also coined the noun “makeup” from the verb phrase “to makeup one’s face.”
As Hollywood moved into its glamorous heyday in the 1930s, movie makeup had an enormous impact on everyday life. Women followed such fads as bleaching their hair to imitate Jean Harlow’s platinum locks, or painting their nails “Jungle Red” as Joan Crawford did in the 1939 film The Women. In 1937, Max Factor patented his “pancake makeup,” and it became so wildly successful that one-third of all American women wore it by 1940.
Cosmetics had become big business, and Factor was joined in this increasingly competitive trade by Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Like Factor, Rubenstein was born in Poland: she first immigrated to Australia and set up beauty salons marketing pots of her special “Krakow face cream.” Enormously successful, she soon opened salons in London, Paris, and in 1914, New York City.
Rubenstein’s Fifth Avenue salon was mere blocks from Elizabeth Arden’s, another pioneering figure in cosmetics who came to New York from rural Canada in 1907. Arden worked at a beauty salon at Fifth Avenue before opening her own salon on Fifth Avenue and 42d Street. Fiercely competitive, the two would battle royally over what a PBS documentary termed “The Powder & The Glory” for the next half century.
As I wrapped up my contribution to the Stuff Conference, I gave the final words on makeup to one of my oracles—Miss Piggy. Curator of entertainment Dwight Blocker Bowers, himself, is a fan of the grand dame of pork and before the conference we had mused together on what Miss Piggy might offer on the subject of pig-fat makeup. No fool is that pig. “If you’re going to slap lipstick on a pig,” she would likely intone, “make very sure it’s not a relative.”