‘Offending’ Portraits : U.S. Cancels Exhibit Bound for Beijing

The Washington Post

The United States on Wednesday canceled plans to send an exhibition of 51 paintings from the National Portrait Gallery to China after the Beijing government demanded that portraits of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir be removed because of “their potential for offending the sensitivities of the Chinese people.”

MacArthur commanded U.S. and U.N. forces during the first part of the 1950-53 Korean War that pitted the United States against China and North Korea. The Chinese objection to the Meir portrait apparently was prompted by Beijing’s policy of championing the Arab states in their dispute with Israel.

The portrait of MacArthur, who died in 1964, was done in 1952 by the late Howard Chandler Christy. The Meir portrait was painted by Raphael Sawyer in 1975. Meir died in 1978.


‘Offensive to This Country’

“They are trying to introduce politics and censorship into an event that is supposed to be purely cultural. That’s offensive to this country, and we don’t buy it,” U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Wick had been scheduled to go to Beijing to open the exhibition in September.

The exhibition, planned since last fall under the U.S.-China cultural-exchange agreement, is entitled “American Portraits of the Past 100 Years from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.” After opening in Beijing, it was supposed to tour the provincial Chinese cities of Shenyang, Nanyang and Chengdu.

Carolyn Carr, assistant director of the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, said the exhibition was made up of “portraits of people who made significant contributions to American life in a variety of different fields.” The portraits cover a broad spectrum of subjects including writers Samuel Clemens and Dashiell Hammett, inventor Thomas A. Edison, poet T.S. Eliot, composer George Gershwin, boxer Joe Louis and opera star Maria Callas.

Best of American Painters

In addition, Carr said, “the exhibition was intended to show some of the best work of leading American painters during that period, beginning with the realism of the turn of the century and concluding with a pop-art portrait by Andy Warhol.”

Other prominent artists who would have been represented include Thomas Eakins, Thomas Hart Benton and Alice Neel.

USIA officials said that, after extensive discussions, the list of works to be included was agreed upon earlier this year, and a formal contract was made between the gallery and the Chinese government’s cultural agency, with USIA contributing $190,000 toward the costs of mounting and transporting the exhibit.


At the time, the officials said, the Chinese made no objection to the MacArthur and Meir portraits.