Ties That Bind: Family Portrayals

August 19-November 23, 2010

The exhibition presented in the museum’s main galleries, Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes, is a compilation of portraits of “heroes”– by the standards set by society. Some visitors to the exhibition might resonate to framing Karsh’s subjects as heroes while others might actually strongly disagree with the inclusion of portraits of some personalities as heroes in the show. Most of our visitors would probably accept Albert Einstein, Mohammad Ali and Ernest Hemingway as heroes while others might question the inclusion in that frame of Fidel Castro, Brigitte Bardot or Boris Karloff. The definition of hero is not to be interpreted in the strict sense of the term here, but rather as multi-sided, multifarious, and ultimately subjective. Karsh includes figures such as Nelson Mandela who obviously changed the history of the modern world and Audrey Hepburn who Karsh admired for her beauty and glamour. Karsh also immortalized people in his pantheon whom he personally respected for the fact that they started at the bottom with nothing in hand, and were able to rise to prominence and achieve their personal goals. Still, his subjects always have the look of having been public figures. Karsh excelled at seizing and rendering the quintessential psychological moments that he thought best revealed the personality of his sitters.

Ties That Bind: Family Portrayals represents a different kind of portraiture. All of the examples on display are examples of portraiture from past centuries from our own permanent collection. These are images that reveal many elements about the sitters. Family portrayals are intimate memories, some trying to elevate the family member, some recording more mundane details for the sake of documentation. Some refer to stories of families beyond our own from mythology or religion. The exhibition Ties That Bind: Family Portrayals displays highly formal and posed Dutch and British family portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries. It also features 17th century Dutch allegorical images showing the Holy Family resting on their flight to Egypt, and Moses and his adopted kin. Lastly, there are contemporary portrayals of an immigrant mother and child, and a photographic diptych suggesting that every family is potentially hiding dark secrets behind a very respectable facade.

Looking at these two exhibitions on view, one should ask what makes for a hero? How are heroes created? How subjective is one’s view or interpretation of a hero? When does a portrait cross from being an intimate object meant for private contemplation to a public icon or an emblematic memory for a collective larger than a family of one’s own?