Face Off

A seemingly benign bust stirs controversy at the National Portrait Gallery

By Aaron Tannenbaum 


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n October 9, 2015, Senator Ted Cruz, along with two dozen of his friends in Congress, took a brief pause from his presidential campaign to pen a letter to Kim Sajet, director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The bloc of conservative lawmakers added their voices to a small but growing chorus that opposes the Gallery’s display of a bust of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in its exhibition The Struggle for Justice. Though Sanger is widely celebrated as a champion of women’s reproductive rights, many object to her advocacy for abortion as a means of population control and her apparently racist attitudes toward black Americans. “Honoring Ms. Sanger is an outrage,” the letter boldly reads.

But is that in fact what Sajet is doing – honoring her? Does having one’s face framed on the (publicly funded) walls of the National Portrait Gallery imply official approval of one’s actions, ideals, and legacy? Cruz et al seem to think so. “Ms. Sanger was no hero,” they wrote, and therefore has no place in the Gallery’s exhibit. Sajet would insist otherwise. “There’s no moral test to be in the National Portrait Gallery,” she told the New Yorker after receiving the letter. “If we did that, there’d be nobody on the walls.”

Indeed, the Gallery has a duty to index the faces of our nation’s most influential figures regardless of their reputations. However, in deciding whose portraits merit a spot on their walls, the Gallery’s curators have a measure of freedom to highlight individuals whose legacies Americans would be most proud of. As a result, the Gallery is simultaneously an art museum and a historical bookkeeper, a mirror of our current values and a reminder that they used to be so different.

The significance of one’s image hanging in China’s National Museum, conversely, is far less ambiguous. The museum is home to artist Dong Xiwen’s iconic work “The Founding of the Nation,” which depicts the official ceremonial founding of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in 1949. The Chinese Revolutionary Museum commissioned Xiwen to record this seminal moment in Chinese history in 1952, and he took considerable artistic license in doing so. The painting is not quite accurate: Xiwen omitted a pillar that stood behind Mao in order to enlarge the cheering crowd and he exaggerated Mao’s height to highlight his political stature. Despite its puzzling composition and historical inaccuracies, contemporary Chinese critics and officials lauded the painting as a fitting tribute to Mao’s success.

As time went on and the dignitaries standing behind Mao in “The Founding of the Nation” fell in and out of political favor, the painting’s inaccuracies became more glaring. When former leader of the Chinese Communist Party Gao Gang was purged from the government for “conspiratorial activities” in 1954, China insisted that Xiwen expunge Gao’s image from the painting. Again around 1970, Xiwen modified the painting to exclude Liu Shaoqi, the late former president who was accused of holding “right-wing” political views. Later that year, Zhao Yu and Jin Shangyi replicated the painting and eliminated former communist leader Lin Boqu in the process.

“‘The Founding of the Nation’ is an example of monumental oil paintings from the Mao period,” says Assistant Professor of History Denise Ho. “This genre was meant to be at once realistic and romanticized. As figures in the portrait fell from political favor, they were simply removed from the painting.” Both the original and its replica now hang in the National Museum of China, evidently as a tribute to the honorable legacies of the people it depicts (for now).

China is not the only country where the public display of one’s portrait can appear and disappear as one’s reputation ebbs and flows. In Ukraine, over 1,000 statues of Vladimir Lenin have been destroyed since December 2013 in fierce displays of anti-Russian sentiment. But the National Portrait Gallery is different. It is a place to simply look at the people who shaped American history, not to idolize or idealize them. Visitors need not look hard to find the face of a violent gangster (Al Capone), blatant anti-Semite (Henry Ford), or unashamed slave-owner (too many to name). Perhaps Sanger would not merit a spot in America’s version of the ever-changing “The Founding of the Nation,” but Sajet made it clear that, at least within the walls of her Gallery, we do not erase historical figures because we dislike what they stood for.


Aaron Tannenbaum is a sophomore Applied Math major in Jonathan Edwards college. Contact him at aaron.tannenbaum@yale.edu.