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.