They stood silent, trying hard to hold their poses. The first to catch my eye was Marilyn Monroe. A bit over-the-top – the hair too blonde, the lips too red, the famous white dress too stereotypical. Perhaps. But then it did draw my eye to their presence.
A dozen of them, each dressed in some iconic fashion. Was that Arthur Ashe in a suit and tennis racket? An unexpected Annie Oakley? Frida Kahlo? Forming a double line their presence was reflected in the Portrait Gallery’s floor fountain, a thin film of water that greets visitors to the museum’ atrium. Ten minutes or more they stood silently. Costumes beckoning stares from curious lunchers. Then, suddenly, a group of itinerant tourists enters en masse and wistfully lines up opposite the fountains from the animated art. At first they seem uncertain what will happen. The tension breaks as each poser in rapid fire bellows an introduction. Then Marilyn (after staring for so long I felt I was on a first name basis) commands all to “Follow Me.” And they did, marching past astonished onlookers and into the caverns of the gallery.
As curious was their statuesque presence, their abrupt departure was even more intriguing. I wanted to follow. What was this?
A poster in the museum’s lobby gave me a first hint. “Mr. Time,” it said, “Portraits by Boris Chaliapin.” A prolific portrait artist called up on 413 occasions to create covers for Time magazine, Chaliapin’s work is currently on exhibit at the Portrait Gallery. Rather than simply display the works, the museum enlisted the help of local teens to write and perform a series of vignettes to highlight the exhibit. “Portraits Alive!” it cajoled alluringly. Not only can you see the art on the wall, you can see the art portrayed in person.
Marilyn Monroe once said, “It’s all make believe, isn’t it?” Perhaps, but then sometimes the make believe comes to life. The Portrait Gallery has done that.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. You can order a signed copy directly from me, download the ebook at barnesandnoble.com, and find hard copies exclusively at Barnes and Noble bookstores. Sales have been brisk so get them while they are available.