January 23, 2007

A presidential portrait has a unique place in U of C history

[img id="80133" align="alignleft"] The portrait of past University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray contrasts markedly with those around it, not only for the boldness of its colors and its distinctively modern style, but also for its history of scrutiny and theft.

The portrait has drawn attention over the years for myriad reasons. Many have commented on the painting’s style and the treatment of its subject, one of only two women in the room. Hossam Tewfik, a second-year, suggested that the painting has come under such intense scrutiny because “she doesn’t look very regal or distinguished compared to the others.”

Upon examining the piece, second-year Nayla Tahan zeroed in on the uniqueness of the hands in the painting, which she describes as “the only one that stands out in the room. I don’t know, it might be because she’s a woman.” Tahan expressed a preference for the other pieces in the room.

When asked whether she herself liked the piece, Gray chuckled. “I don’t know that anyone ever likes their own portrait,” she said. “But I think he’s a very good painter.”

Gray was given the opportunity to choose among three modern artists and chose Philip Pearlstein, a noted modernist painter who went on to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1983, and whose art is well known around the world. Gray said she had “no say” in what the picture looked like and that Pearlstein had great freedom in representing her.

But those familiar with the painting know it for more than its questionable artistic attributes. The painting has been stolen twice, both times in 1996. In the first incident, on April 6, the portrait disappeared and was found underneath the stage in Mandel Hall. “The first time there was something to do with an assault on womankind,” Gray said.

The painting was restored unharmed, only to be stolen again in May, an incident that walks the line between crime and prank.

In an article in the University of Chicago Magazine in August of 1996, it was revealed that the painting was removed from its frame and taken around the city to be photographed by the thief. A student found it behind a Hyde Park building. The article reported that “an attached note advised the finder to take the portrait to the police and collect the $500 reward being offered for its safe return. Although a quote from the Book of Revelations, along with a doodle of a horn (an allusion to novelist Thomas Pynchon?), was scribbled on its back, the portrait itself was unharmed.”

The thief, who referred to himself as the “Unabandit,” sent manifestos to the MAROON at the time, suggesting that freeing Gray’s portrait from its frame was akin to freeing her “doppelganger,” and that leaving the frame was an ironic reference to the tendencies of modern art.

Although the Unabandit’s actions seem to land the incident squarely in the realm of prank, the University swiftly installed a new security system, one which Gray describes as “well alarmed.”

“To my knowledge, none of the other portraits has ever been stolen,” said Kinaret Jaffe, secretary of the Board of Trustees since 1995, who also confirmed the additional security measures taken surrounding the piece.

Gray discussed the origins of her noteworthy portrait in a telephone interview. “There was a certain convention about portraits,” said Gray, who explained that all presidents and board chairs of the University have their portrait painted and placed in Hutchinson Commons.

“The Trustees, who have a committee dealing with matters of art, decided it was time to break the mold in Hutchinson Commons and do something that was more uncommon,” she said.

A professor of history since 1961 and tenured since 1964, Gray briefly left the University to work in the administrations of Northwestern and Yale before returning to Chicago in 1978 to assume the position of President. Gray is currently professor emerita in the history department.