National Portrait Gallery exhibition marks 50th anniversary of Watergate

All of the president’s men — and a few who certainly weren’t part of Richard M. Nixon’s team — can be found in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue.” This visual essay on the scandal that forced Nixon’s resignation anticipates the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which occurred on June 17, 1972.

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Nixon’s presidency spanned more than two years – during which he was easily re-elected – and ended with his resignation on August 9, 1974. The works in this exhibition are entirely from this period or shortly after . Rather than seeing Watergate through a historical lens, the show reveals how Nixon and his associates were portrayed at the time. The investigation includes photographs, cartoons and a strange sculpture. There is also a wanted poster issued by the so-called “Committee to Remove the President” which depicts Nixon as the only remaining fugitive of the 19 Watergate players who had already been indicted.

Of course, some of the elements have a different meaning today. Fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s 1976 portrait of FBI Associate Director Mark Felt is, we now know, an image of “Deep Throat,” the long-unnamed source of inside information passed to Washington Post reporters. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (Felt did not reveal his role until 2005.)

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Woodward and Bernstein do not appear in the exhibit, which was curated by Kate Clarke Lemay, the museum’s acting senior historian, from its permanent holdings. But there is a 1972 cartoon by Edward Sorel in which Katharine Graham, then editor of the Washington Post, stares at Attorney General John Mitchell with his legs caught in a wringer – a reference to Mitchell’s warning that a sensitive part of Graham’s anatomy would be twisted. if The Post publishes harmful information. She says goodbye to Mitchell, who was later convicted on multiple counts and sent to prison.

The selection of artifacts is based largely on the gallery‘s collection of photos and artwork created for the cover of Time magazine, 12 of which are included, from the more than 40 cover stories published by the magazine. Among these are a caricature of Nixon and his closest aides, drawn by Jack Davis (best known for his work for Mad magazine), and this eerie sculpture: pop artist Marisol Escobar’s 1972 rendering of Nixon’s Mount Rushmore and Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State. A marble eye embedded in Kissinger’s face is a particularly disturbing feature of the piece, designed to illustrate the duo’s nomination as Time’s “Men of the Year” in 1972.

Other Time covers featuring 3D artwork include George Giusti’s rendering of Mitchell, drawn on a bleach bottle, and Stanislaw Zagorski’s literally tweedy portrait of White House attorney John Dean. Nowadays, such keys would probably be simulated on a computer.

The Portrait Gallery shares its building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, so it’s only fitting that one of the entrances to the Watergate show parodies the work of a renowned American painter. Draper Hill’s 1973 editorial cartoon “The Credibility Gulf Stream” places Nixon in the position of the sailor threatened by sharks in Winslow Homer’s 1889 painting “The Gulf Stream”. Hill replaced the original’s wound strings with tapes from the Oval Office Recording System, the existence of which had just been revealed at the time.

The show does not end with an opinion but with a fact: George Tames’ August 9, 1974 photographs of Nixon’s helicopter departure from the White House and the new president, Gerald Ford. The latter pardoned his predecessor, ending any talk about the possibility of indicting a former president of the United States. It’s a hot topic 50 years later, but one that “Watergate: Portraiture and Intrigue,” understandably, doesn’t address.

Watergate: portrait and plot

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. npg.si.edu.

Julia P. Cluff