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A Year Of Abraham Lincoln

December 12, 2008

We are about to enter a year where we will look back often, and reflect on the life of one of America’s truly remarkable and essential citizens.  Abraham Lincoln.  We are entering his bicentennial year, and with it comes a long list of events that will celebrate and honor the man, while we become more knowledgeable about the complexity of his thinking, and the rigors that he endured as President during the worst crisis our nation ever faced.

Two white plaster masks appear next to each other in a display case at the National Portrait Gallery here. One shows a middle-aged face with a firm, grim look — perhaps because the subject had to control his breathing as the sculptor waited for the substance to harden. The plaster eyes are scooped out, but you can glimpse the interior man in the subtle musculature of the jaw, the high cheekbones, the expansive, smooth brow. He is determined, vigorous and (we know) ambitious.

The other mask is of the same man’s face, about five years later. It seems more of a death mask than one taken from life. Those years — between 1860, when this man, Abraham Lincoln, was beginning his campaign for president of the United States, and February 1865, when he was just two months away from being murdered — seem to have carved the flesh from his cheeks, hollowed out the eye sockets more decisively than any sculptor’s thumb, and dug lines and pockets in aging, sallow flesh.

This modest exhibition of 30 images of Lincoln at the Portrait Gallery — “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln” — may turn out to be an understated highlight of Lincoln’s coming bicentennial year, which promises a full harvest of academic conferences, exhibitions, the reopening of Ford’s Theater and scores of new books, many offering revelations from freshly plumbed archives and analyses of figures major and minor. But the juxtaposition of these masks may remain one of the most potent, graphic images of the effects of the crucial years they frame.

They suggest, too, how closely our conceptions of Lincoln’s public greatness are connected with our conception of his inner life, his empathy, his personal suffering. It is as if, in resuscitating the Union after the grievous bloodshed of the Civil War, Lincoln had bodily absorbed the nation’s suffering — prefiguring the posthumous Christian iconography that developed after Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday.

“This war is eating my life out,” Lincoln told a friend. “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”

In this small show, organized by the curator David C. Ward, images become more powerful than argument. What can be read in Lincoln’s features — of his leadership of the Union, his milestone emancipation of slaves, his rededication of American ideals based on the inalienable rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence? Could another figure of his age have done the same?

One Comment
  1. enemyoftyranny permalink
    December 14, 2008 7:45 AM

    Hopefully people will also take the time to learn about the atrocities committed by and supported by this “remarkable” citizen.

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