The Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) opened its newest exhibition, “Face Forward: Recent Acquisitions,” yesterday. The exhibition explores the purposes and politics of portraiture and highlights recent additions to the museum’s collection.
BCMA Co-Director Anne Goodyear said in an interview that when she and other museum staff decided to make an exhibition that displayed the museum’s recent additions, they realized that portraiture was a theme throughout the new acquisitions.
“We thought there’s nothing more interesting than looking at other people thinking about what their stories are,” she said. “And we felt that this particular combination of portraits each had a compelling story to tell, both in terms of the subjects who are represented, but also in terms of the means through which those works came into the collection.”
BCMA Co-Director Frank Goodyear noted that portraiture has been a theme to the museum’s collections since its founding in 1811, when famed early American painter Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were given to the museum.
“Those pictures were given to the museum in 1811 when James Bowdoin died, and so those portraits have been on campus almost as long as the College has existed,” he said.
He explained how the museum’s acquisition process has changed in the two centuries since James Bowdoin’s bequest. The museum, whose collection now includes over 30,000 artworks, takes only the artworks that will add something unique to the collection. The museum adds between 100 and 400 artworks to the collection each year, he said.
“Everything that is offered to the museum, or that we’re thinking about acquiring for the museum, goes through a review process, and I would say 80 percent of what we look at does not get added,” Frank Goodyear said. “The question is, ‘How do we decide what’s worth adding to the collection?’”
“[We have] a desire to tell as many stories from around the world,” he added. “And the work that is in ‘Face Forward’ reflects a desire on our part to tell many different stories about the human experience from many different points of view in a lot of different artistic media.”
Many of the portraits represented something unusual at the time they were taken, Anne Goodyear noted. “What I love about all of these portraits is that every single one of them was trying to break new ground,” she said.
A portrait of Japanese Empress Consort Haruko, for example, taken in 1872 by Japanese photographer Uchida Kuici, was the first portrait of members of the Japanese imperial family, BCMA Curator Casey Braun said. Other members of the family—including her husband, Emperor Meiji—were also photographed at the time.
“What’s really interesting about this photograph is that it was really the first time that anyone from the Japanese imperial family had had portraits made of them,” Braun said. “Usually, because the emperor, who had also been photographed, was considered a divine being, he rarely went out in public…. This portrait was taken during the Meiji restoration when Japan was opening its borders and modernizing and becoming interested in Western dress, for instance, and so this portrait was the first ever sanctioned portrait of the emperor [and the empress].”
Anne Goodyear noted the significance of photography being used in Japan in the 1870s.
“When we think about the fact that Japan was deliberately closed off to the West up until about 1850, and photography is a relatively new medium, developed in the West, you begin to realize it’s actually a radical act to use this new form of art … to depict an ancient monarchical structure, but one that’s beginning to be under pressure because of changing things that are happening in society,” Anne Goodyear said.
The exhibition also featured a portrait of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, taken by Walter Pach in 1933. The portrait was one of the first times Kahlo was recognized for her abilities as a budding painter and not as the spouse of Diego Rivera, also a painter.
“It’s a super interesting story of a young, unknown artist, Frida Kahlo, who was at that point better known as the wife of Diego Rivera,” Anne Goodyear said. “And Walter Pach was one of the first people to recognize that she was a powerhouse in her own right.”
One portrait in the exhibition is of painter Chuzo Tamotzu’s niece. Entitled “Helena’s Imaginary Air Shelter,” the portrait paradoxically shows the subject hiding in a bed of flowers.
“What’s funny is you look at that painting, and it’s these sunflowers, and it looks really charming, but then you see that it says ‘Helena’s Air Shelter,’ and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, why in the 1960s is Chuzo Tamotzu concerned about an air raid shelter for his niece?’” Goodyear said. “[Tamotzu] was very much involved in the anti-war movement and actually worked actively to create new connections between the US and Japan in the wake of the war, specifically through sponsoring and exchange of children’s drawings.”
Another artwork in the exhibition is a self-portrait taken in 1972 of the late David Driscoll, who was a historian of African-American art. Entitled “Masking Myself,” the self-portrait is a window into Driscoll’s visions as an artist.
“What’s fun about that self-portrait, which infuses a self-representation with evidence of his interest in the art of Africa, is that you get in that self-portrait a sense of Dr. Driscoll’s intense self-reflection,” Anne Goodyear said. “You get a sense of his interest in artistic traditions, including not only the art of Africa but also cubism.”
In these works and throughout the exhibition, Anne Goodyear noted the power of the portrait to push against conventional thinking.
“One of the funny things about portraiture is that there are certain conventions that we’ve become accustomed to,” she said. “And so, sometimes it’s easy to overlook just how radical a portrait can be.”