Few things illustrate the parallell history of the US as clearly as visiting the National Portrait Gallery’s presidential exhibition the day after a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. At the second, you walk through generations of oppression and resistance; in the first, you walk through the generations of older white men that’s partly responsible for it.
It is a crazy collection of portraits. The absolute majority of the white men looks like the bad guy in a political thrillers. “I wouldn’t trust that guy at all”, I whispered to my date. Considering yesterday’s visit, that also feels like an empirically sound conclusion. In one portrait a group of white men, several of them former presidents, are laughing hysterically together. “You know, nothing good has ever come from so many old white men having so much fun”, I said. “They had probably just voted to restrict the voting rights of black people or limit abortion for women.” My date did not have a comment on this, but I’, sure he agreed with me.
Another reflection: whatever happened with the tradition to make busts? I’m guessing that a certain group and class of people still have portraite paintings made of themselves, but do anyone make busts anymore? I decided on the spot to become really rich and have like twenty busts of myself made, and then give them to all my friends and family for Christmas and birthday presents. I told my date about this too, and again, for some reason, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. This showed a lamentable lack of energy and enthusiasm. I removed him from the list of people who would be getting a bust when I was rich and famous.
It quickly became very clear that democratic presidents were a little more willing to experiment than republican ones. This was especially clear with the crazy portrait of Bill Clinton, placed as it was between two generations of very, very traditional Bush:s. Clintons was much crazier than the sight of Obama in a green bush, and much more strange than the modern and colourful portrait of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy one was possibly my favourite, or the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt. For some reason the painter was obsessed with his hands and painted like three pairs of them. One pair was even smoking.
I am afraid I did not like the portrait of Obama. I wanted something more powerful. Possibly something like a fuck you-sign.