Transcripts: Portraits of Pittsburgh [VIDEOS]

Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek:

I’m here now with what is one of my favorite portraits in this exhibition: Paul Meltzner’s 1938 image of Martha Graham. Artist Meltzner, who was well known as a WPA artist – that’s Works Progress Administration – he did post office murals and was really interested in Americanism and the American scene – he focused a lot on works that dealt with things like industry and agricultural work. He saw Martha Graham as a symbol of a new American pioneer and in fact he painted more than seven images of her.

I have to say I think this one is the best and he has depicted her really in the guise of Martha Graham the dancer. You see she’s dressed in this very plain brown outfit but she’s lit from behind by a dramatic sky and you can see how the artist has kind of focused in on her unique facial appearance and just these little bursts of light in her hands to emphasize her figure.

Graham, who grew up in Allegheny City, had a father who studied, basically, psychology. Some people at the time would have called him an alienist. Today we would think of that as psychology, and he first believed that motion – that people’s movements could betray their underlying feelings. And this is part of a belief that Graham carried with her into her dance discipline. She once said that movement never lies and rather than taking the traditional kind of beautiful flowing lines of most dance, Graham used harsh movements, strange and angular poses, and even sometimes used the flowing garments to kind of create sails and other pieces. But she really created a new vocabulary in dance and that’s what Paul Meltzner is emphasizing in this work.

Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek:

So, I’m here with our exhibition’s tribute to Pittsburgh’s favorite son, Gene Kelly.

Now the National Portrait Gallery image of Gene Kelly is not a painting or a drawing; it’s a movie poster. It’s actually a poster from West Berlin for the movie “An American in Paris.” This poster dates to 1952, although the film came out in 1951 and an interesting note about this work is that it actually came from Gene Kelly’s own collection. So why would it be “An American in Paris” that he would basically choose to represent himself in the Portrait Gallery? Well, “An American in “Paris” is the film that garnered Gene Kelly multiple Academy Awards. It won Best Picture and it also garnered Kelly his own honorary Oscar for a number of contributions to film but mainly his extraordinary contributions to the choreography and depiction of dance on screen.

And in many ways “An American in Paris,” when it was released, was a more successful film than the film for which he’s famous to us today, and that of course is “Singin’ in the Rain.” Now our Pittsburgh artifact features one of the costumes Gene Kelly wore in “Singin’ in the Rain.” For us of course it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” that has become this epitome of the 1950s Hollywood musical and this really high point in the creative genesis of this type of film. Imagine this moment, because Gene Kelly won the Oscar for “An American in Paris” in March 1952 – March 20th. Seven days later, “Singin’ in the Rain” debuted at Radio City Music Hall and then it opened in April and at that moment in time you had this Pittsburgh boy who was still well known in this area. He taught dance lessons in Squirrel Hill and here he is in screens across the country on two major blockbuster films.

Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek:

With Johnny Weissmuller, in some ways we’re talking about a Western Pennsylvanian who wasn’t.

Our National Portrait Gallery image of Johnny Weissmuller shows him in a photographic portrait that was taken when someone was painting a formal portrait of him – probably in July 1924, which would have been just after the Olympics in 1924. And of course Weissmuller was a celebrated American swimmer. He won three golds and one bronze in the 1924 Olympics and then two more gold medals in 1928.

But Weissmuller’s role in the Olympics and his connection to Western Pennsylvania was based on – we’ll say – a white lie from his parents. He always believed that he had been born in Windber in Somerset County and in fact he always regarded small Windber, a coal mining community, as his hometown. It only turned out after Johnny’s death that people found out that in fact his parents had given him his brother’s birthday. His brother – his younger brother – had actually been born in Windber, but Johnny had been born when his parents were still immigrating from Romania and so they had done this because they were afraid that if people knew of his, in effect, foreign birth, he wouldn’t have been allowed to be on the Olympic team.

Now our History Center artifact connected to this story is a sweatshirt that the members of the 1924 Olympic swim team gave to their manager, John T. Taylor, and if you zoom in you can see Johnny Weissmuller’s signature on the sweatshirt. Taylor was both the manager of the team and he was the person who was responsible for helping to oversee the selection of the members. So for people like Johnny to sign that sweater was really – it was a memento for the person who had given them their Olympic opportunity in the first place.

Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek:

We’re here with the National Portrait Gallery’s poster of Lillian Russell.

Russell was probably the most famous female performer in late 19th and early 20th century America and certainly a worldwide phenomenon too. Now the poster was printed for one specific transition in her career. The image shows her as she was costumed in a famous kind of comedic portrayal, but in 1904, 1905 she had some vocal problems and while she had started as a singer, she knew at this point she was going to move away from musical comedy and into drama. This poster is made specifically to show her in a dramatic role in which she was a success and to kind of capture her as this vivacious performer who is shifting into drama.

Now our own artifacts related to Lillian Russell really kind of helped depict a different transition in her career. Russell became a Pittsburgher in 1912 when she married AP Moore. She had an earlier contact with someone from Pittsburgh, and that’s the connection with our dress here. Lillian Russell supposedly met a Pittsburgher named Maria Harrington while both of them were traveling on the Lusitania – that was an oceanic liner that would go back and forth across the Atlantic. While Lillian apparently traveled under an assumed name, Maria Harrington, the Pittsburgh resident, supposedly expressed a real admiration for a dress that Lillian wore and so Lillian gave it to her. Now we can never of course completely prove that story.

So why would we include the dress here? Because the dress is this reminder of Lillian’s role as this worldwide performer. She went back and forth from America to Europe on many occasions and in fact not only regarding performance. In 1922 – this is after she came to Pittsburgh and she and her husband AP Moore were very active in Republican progressive politics – President Warren G Harding actually asked her to go back overseas to serve as kind of the leader of a commission he had chartered looking at the history, looking at the impact of immigration.

So Lillian wasn’t just a performer in Pittsburgh; she became a social activist and really someone who worked in politics. So the dress for us illustrates multiple sides of this person – Lillian Russell, the performer and Lillian Russell, the generous person who responded well to a fan’s request, and Lillian Russell who reinvented herself once again here in Pittsburgh.

Senior Curator Leslie Przybylek:

I’m standing here in our “Gallery of New Visions and Voices,” which features literary and artistic figures, beside our portraits – the National Portrait Gallery’s portraits – of playwright August Wilson and artist Romare Bearden.

In some ways, while they’re both photographs, they couldn’t be more different. Susan Johann’s very intense, close focus, black and white portrait of August Wilson kind of zeroes in on his gaze. The photographer spent more than 20, 25 years documenting America’s great playwrights. August Wilson was one of more than 90 people who she documented, kind of putting him within this list of great American playwrights. On the other hand, Hans Namouth’s image of Romare Bearden is a color photo that shows him in his studio with one of his blue coveralls. You might be thinking, well, wait it’s in his studio but he doesn’t look like he has paint all over them. It’s because Romare Bearden was most well known as a collage artist, so he used snippings from photos and magazines and foil and things like that to create his images.

Why do we have them side by side? Because they influenced each other, especially in the case of August Wilson. While he never met Romare Bearden, he had a chance to see some of Romare Bearden’s works in an exhibit catalog and the story of the two of them is really an illustration of why it matters that people are able to see work from someone like themselves in our galleries. Romare Bearden had a show launched by the Museum of Modern Art or MOMA in New York City in 1971 after a group called the Art Workers Coalition demanded that there be more African American and women artists’ works shown in organizations like MOMA. So Bearden had a show. It became published in a catalog and this is where August Wilson first encountered Bearden’s works. Later two of Bearden’s collages – “Millhand’s Lunch Bucket” and “The Piano Lesson” actually influenced specific Wilson plays.