Portrait Gallery shares Time's images of WWII

February 16, 1992|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,Chicago Tribune

The interest in World War II has occasioned not only television documentaries and a deja vu look in fashion, but also a retrospective appreciation of World War II-era art.

This period of global conflagration seems more synonymous with the destruction and repression of art than its cultivation, but the painted image was as much a part of those dark days as any other form of culture -- as the Museum of Modern Art's recent and splendid retrospective "Art of the Forties" attests.

This was particularly true in popular culture, namely magazines. War paintings published weekly by Life magazine brought home the horror and human drama of the conflict in vivid detail. And standing as historic milestones of every phase of the war were the covers of Time magazine.

Washington's National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition of 36 original Time cover war portraits on view through May 17.

They embrace the full range of the war's protagonists -- not only the statesmen and heroes but also the Allies' formidable adversaries, both noble and fiendish.

The Soviet Union's brutal Josef Stalin is presented as a noble, even saintly hero, a godlike peasant leader whose stoic face is represented as a mirror image of the strength and suffering of his people.

The cover, of course, suited the political convenience of the time. After Great Britain, the USSR was the United States' most important ally. The possibilities of the Iron Curtain and decades of Cold War were as expediently overlooked as Stalin's extermination of millions of his own people in the 1920s and '30s.

The portraits are perforce polemic, but they lack the vitriolic hysteria and gross caricature so profuse in the propaganda art of the time.

Indeed, they have a certain grandeur, even those of S.S. butcher Reinhard Heydrich, who is depicted with his shorn head framed by dangling nooses, and Adm. Karl Doenitz, the U-boat chief who is shown rising from stormy seas among serpents.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur is depicted as indomitable and godlike. Time's trademark use of illustrative and biographical background detail, a throwback to 18th century portraiture, is well represented. In MacArthur's case, the sky behind him is filled with high-flying B-17s, while in the lower left corner, a fist descends from the heavens to bash a feckless-looking Emperor Hirohito on the head. The emperor's own Time cover portrait, however, shows him in full imperial majesty.

The portrait subjects were selected as newsmakers, and the intent was journalistic. Every effort was extended to make each cover topical.

When Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's forces successfully landed in North Africa, Time scrapped 800,000 copies of its Nov. 16, 1942, issue to replace a less timely subject with a cover portrait of the new hero.

The April 30, 1945, cover was supposed to be of Soviet war hero Marshal Zhukov, but it was quickly scrapped when word came of Hitler's suicide. Without time to complete a telling background for the hurry-up picture, the magazine simply printed a huge red "x" across Hitler's face.

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