Julia Child / Boris Chaliapin / Tempera on board, 1966 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine
Recently we spoke with Jim Barber, curator of “Mr. Time: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin.” He discussed the exhibition—which will run through January 5, 2014—and the history and resonance of the National Portrait Gallery’s Time magazine collection.
Q: Can you tell us how the National Portrait Gallery acquired the Time collection?
JB: In 1978 Time magazine approached the National Portrait Gallery about a gift of several hundred works of original cover art that had been accumulating in its crowded storage area. The covers spanned five decades of news reporting, from the 1930s to 1978. Because Time predominately ran portraits of newsmakers on its covers in those years, the National Portrait Gallery was a logical repository for the stewardship of this significant gift. Included were dozens of covers by Boris Chaliapin.
Q: Boris Chaliapin painted scores of portraits for Time magazine. Why is such a prolific artist not a household name?
JB: Boris Chaliapin was one Time’s many contract artists, and quite a few of those were magazine illustrators. For the most part, they were not the cutting-edge artists of their day, like Andy Warhol was in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Artists like Chaliapin were Time’s go-to artists, week-in and week-out.
Chaliapin probably was a household name in many households that subscribed to Time. Yet his last Time cover—Richard Nixon—appeared on the issue of October 5, 1970, forty-three years ago. Younger generations of readers would not necessarily know or remember his name.
Q: Do you have a favorite portrait in the exhibition? Do you have a favorite story behind a portrait?
JB: There are many good back-stories about Chaliapin’s cover art. For instance, Time was ready to go to print with his life portrait of jazz musician Thelonious Monk—a proof print had already been made and dated November 25, 1963. But Time pulled that cover because of President Kennedy’s assassination three days before.
The cover of Monk ran instead on February 28, 1964, in the height of Beatlemania, as the Beatles had just ended their American tour. Time’s senior publisher, Henry Luce, the conservative cornerstone of the magazine, may have had something to do with that choice of cover at that singular time in pop culture.
Q: Have you enjoyed the reception the show has received?
JB: Yes, and I’ve especially enjoyed the comments of visitors who have shared their own insights about Chaliapin and his sitters. For instance, we show an unpublished cover of Stan Musial (below), the St. Louis Cardinals star hitter and outfielder of the late 1940s, who is depicted batting right-handed. One visitor who has studied the artist’s work noted that Musial in fact batted left-handed, so Time couldn’t run Chaliapin’s portrait; if it had, it would have risked receiving numerous letters to the editor from observant readers pointing out the error.
Stanley Frank Musial / Boris Chaliapin / Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper illustration board, undated / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Boris Chaliapin, ©2008 Estate of Helcia Chaliapin