U.S. Cancels Exhibit After Chinese Refuse 2 Portraits, Including Golda’s
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U.S. Cancels Exhibit After Chinese Refuse 2 Portraits, Including Golda’s

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The United States has cancelled a National Portrait Gallery exhibition to China because the Chinese government refused to show portraits of former Israeli Premier Golda Meir and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The two portraits, a Chinese official explained in a letter last month to the National Portrait Gallery, “involve politically sensitive questions which are not only against the present policy of China but also involved in the relations with the third countries.”

Although Chinese officials have refused to state their specific objection to the Meir portrait, it is believed to be based on their desire not to anger Arab countries. The objection to the Mac-Arthur portrait apparently stems from his role as commander of U.S. forces in the Korean War.

The Chinese demands that the portraits be removed from the exhibit brought a stern protest Thursday from the United States Information Agency, which was sponsoring the exhibit as part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and China.

“It is unacceptable to dictate which portraits shall be included. It is an affront to the American people and to the memory of Douglas MacArthur and Golda Meir. We had hoped that they would welcome the exhibit as a cultural rather than a political event; unhappily this has not occurred,” the USIA statement read.

The exhibit was to focus on the changing style of American portraiture over the past 100 years, said Carolyn Carr, assistant director of collections at the National Portrait Gallery. The 51 portraits would have included such figures as Samuel Clemens, Thomas Edison, T.S. Eliot, George Gershwin and Henry James.

Carr said the Chinese voiced no objections to the portraits selected when the museum signed a contract for the exhibit last March. The exhibit was to have opened in Beijing in September and toured three cities.


The Meir portrait was painted by Raphael Soyer in 1975 when the former Premier, then age 77, was on a trip to the United States. A museum catalogue described Soyer as painting women “not for what they might symbolize but for what they really are She (Meir) is a gentle, pensive, but still robust person and he writes that he was impressed by her strong, wise and kind face.”

“It’s basically a very loving portrait of an older woman. We thought it was a beautiful portrait,” Carr said. The National Portrait Gallery exhibition is part of a cultural exchange agreement between the U.S. and China signed in 1978. The first exchange, a display of paintings from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was almost cancelled because the Chinese objected to some abstract paintings after they had arrived in China. The U.S., however, refused to remove the works and the Chinese relented.

“We feel it’s terribly regrettable. This was meant to be a cultural exchange and we were taking works of art, that was our concern, just to pick out the most representative works of American portraiture,” said Carr.

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