Time-ly Presidents at the Portrait Gallery

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Here's something that few people might be unaware of. The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is a major repository of original artworks that once graced the covers of Time magazine.  Since its founding in 1923, the publication has relied an extensive network of artists to produce a bevy of eye-popping visuals not only to entice a passerby to pick up a newsstand copy, but also to comment on a notable newsmaker. In 1978, Time Inc. donated some 800 paintings, drawings and sketches of major luminaries of the times and today the collection is about 2,000 strong and still growing.

The Portrait Gallery's new show From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time features 32 portraits executed in a variety of media—from oil to sculpture—and invites visitors to visually explore the modern American presidency.

One of the show's standout pieces is a shadow box created by artist Joan Hall for the August 18, 1980 issue. "When I was given this assignment by Time magazine," Hall says in a letter to the Portrait Gallery, "I was assigned a long list of events during President Carter’s term to include in the assemblage. I believe that an illustrator must combine good graphics with content, so it was a bit of a challenge to put so much information on one cover without it looking too cluttered. I solved this problem by making individual compartments surrounding the sculpture of Carter. In one compartment symbolizing Chinese/American relations I decided to use a fortune cookie with an American flag against the Great Wall. For inflation, I used a green balloon with dollar signs. Finally, to give a more personal and humorous touch to the piece, I included at the base of the bust of President Carter family photos, peanuts, a Bible, and a red dollhouse hotline telephone.”

Granted, I wasn't even alive during the Carter presidency, so many of the images in pieces like this don't have much resonance with me. While I may not be intimately familiar with the nitty gritty details of American life under his administration, Hall's visuals do a fair bit of storytelling. Funny how certain problems—like gas prices and inflation—keep cropping up. Furthermore, there's the sheer fun and novelty of the piece. Who couldn't have a laugh at Billy Beer, if only for the bouncy, alliterative name and the fabulously offbeat presidential connection?

See this and other prime pieces of American illustration in From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time, on view until September 26, 2010.

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