02/24/2015 05:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Portrait Becomes Caricature


I love art and greatness, and when the two combine to herald and freeze forever the persona of a grand pubic figure, I consider that my altar of worship. Consider for example, a Rembrandt painted by Rembrandt! This is why the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. is one of my favorite American museums to wander around in. This is the national archive where from any floor, room, and or corner, American history hangs in glory in the form of portraits of great Americans made by great American artists. One can only be inspired from a visit here.

There are many venues that carry a similar mission around the country, but do so on a smaller scale with a local focus. The State Capitol Building in Salem, Oregon, is one such place. For a state that has had a relatively understated presence amongst our nation of states, the Capitol building is proud, distinguished, and houses some fine portraits of our state governors done by our revered artists. I consider a few of these portraits in the collection as great, and one artist in particular, Henk Pander, as great.

It is a daunting task for any artist to paint a portrait that satisfies its viewing audience. But when the subject carries the title and position of the state's governor and is commissioned with the knowledge that the portrait will hang as public treasure, what criteria gets used to measure success? How much realism can a 2-dimensional image capture of the complexity of a 3-dimensional public figure? How does the artist capture in a frozen image greatness and humanness? And, what happens when the subject of the portrait, rendered in good faith at the time of completion is no longer seen in the same "light, color and mood" years later because newer revelations are disclosed that discolor the persona rendered that hangs on the wall?

The answer hangs once again in Salem, Oregon, where a portrait became a caricature. This happened to the once awesome and regal former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt, a Democrat, whose portrait now collects dust in dark storage out of the public's view. He is such a disgraced figure today that allowing his portrait to hang for public consumption supported by taxpayers is too ugly and painful. The artist had no idea how Mr. Goldschmidt was yet to be perceived years later because of the dark secrets that were successfully suppressed about his past. The artist did their job, but the Governor lied. The final portrait could not capture the honest and despicable dimensions not yet made public. Now the portrait of the Governor, is diminished as caricature, fodder for his name to be used as a verb, to creatively express utter horror in the form of survivor's humor.

Such is the case with Oregon's now former Governor John Kitzhaber. Governor Kitzhaber was re-elected in November 2014 for a historic fourth term. Henk Pander painted his portrait in 2009 during his first twice-elected tour as governor. The Governor looks measured, confident, relaxed with a leg crossed in a manly manner, his white shrit sleeves are rolled up indicating a less than formal but working character, he is wearing trademark western boots and blue jeans, speaking to an indigenous Oregon quality. Kitzhaber is in the foreground with a view of the valley of the beautiful meandering Rogue River, he has his medical bag by his feet to honor his career as a dedicated emergency room doctor before ascending to the pinnacle of state power. Henk Pander's portrait of Governor Kitzhaber depicts power in an Oregon sort of way, humble but exceptional, close to the hearts of the citizenry, measured, but clearly depicting a transformational figure.

This portrayal of the Governor Kitzhaber in portraiture is amazingly accurate and profound. The painting is as transformational as the subject. But it is incapable of measuring the man we perceive today. The man now reads more as a caricature. A tragic figure who lost his way. A caricature is like a portrait with equal effective artistry to capture likeness while playfully altering facial features and their relationships to push the impression of the image to express and or cause a bit of ridicule, humor and political satire. It is very likely that Kitzhaber's great portrait by the great Henk Pander will quietly disappear from the Halls of Power to reside alongside the Goldschmidt portrait, out of date, out of fashion, out of view, and best forgotten.

In fairness to Governor Kitzhaber, his contributions far outweigh his failings. He fell victim, like so many powerful elected men needy of emotional massaging have, to influences below his belt and beyond his aging bodice. This is not to excuse his corrupted indiscretions. He did the right thing in stepping down within an honorable amount of time relative to his losing control of a positive narrative, and the state of Oregon political class did the right thing in cleaning house. It is too bad other states have not followed the Oregon standard and taken expedient and proper measures to purge their governors and or elected officials after disclosures discolored their "portrait." It seems as though these states prefer having a caricature in power. When the official "portrait" of the elected official, stands as a frozen idealized impression and fails to include the real 3-dimensional qualities, the portrait needs to be put in dark cold storage, leaving a caricature. There are too many caricatures in today's elected class, and not enough portraits worthy of hanging as a public treasure to inspire.