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The Timeless Image of Grief and Sorrow

A deep-reaching visual language links Jackie Kennedy to antiquity's Agrippina

November 21, 2003|David M. Lubin | David M. Lubin is a professor of art at Wake Forest University and the author of "Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images" (University of California Press, 2003).

Some of the 20th century's best-known, most often reproduced news photographs and footage emerged from a single weekend -- the one that began Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Burned into our mind's eye, the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, lurches across the trunk of the Lincoln Continental convertible; the new president, Lyndon Johnson, takes the oath of office on Air Force One; Jack Ruby bursts out of a throng of reporters to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald; the stoic widow stands hand in hand with her two small children at the foot of the cathedral steps.

These images are so famous, and the events they document of such import, that they have paradoxically become invisible. We view them as window glass through which we think we can see history as it occurred, without any subjective overlay or editorializing. But, in truth, these images survived -- unlike so many others from that weekend -- precisely because they stretch beyond the facts, tapping into a visual language that connects to cultural memory and gives shape and even purpose to those terrible events.

Some of the associations are familiar. Scenes from Alfred Hitchcock movies -- images of a crop duster chasing Cary Grant or of eerily massed crows on a playground jungle gym, for example -- gave viewers a reference for the existential dread of the Zapruder film, the sudden shift from celebration to horror, the knowledge that without warning or logic, life can be torn asunder. And the noir 1940s street photography of Arthur "Weegee" Fellig and his fellow tabloid photojournalists, together with the 1950s gangland vengeance sagas of Hollywood B-movies, prepared the way for Bob Jackson's stunning on-the-spot photo of Ruby gunning down Oswald, ensuring that the murder would be understood in terms of conspiracy, paranoia and even corruption in high places.

And though most viewers -- and even the photographers who took the pictures and the photo editors who selected them -- may not have realized it, some of the most vivid imagery of that weekend drew on classical artistic antecedents for its emotion and its power to organize our thoughts.

The famous picture of Johnson taking the oath of office in the cramped quarters of Air Force One amounts to a modern-day version of Jacques-Louis David's 1784 masterpiece, "The Oath of the Horatii." In the painting, which depicts a heroic moment from an ancient Roman legend, the central figure raises his arms to pledge an oath of loyalty during a time of crisis. It became a French Revolution icon for much the same reason that Cecil Stoughton's photograph lodged itself in the modern American consciousness -- because it provided a visual model of devotion and duty to the national cause, of personal considerations cast aside for the public good, of the precedence of law and order over chaos and emotion.

That the same sort of language of classicism permeates the enduring imagery of JFK's funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, was no accident. Its pomp and ritual tied it to history's great moments the way a white marble likeness places George Washington in the company of Caesars. And it served as an antidote to the sordid spectacle of ambush, blood and fear of the preceding days.

With her careful planning of the funeral proceedings -- including the memorable touches of the riderless horse and the eternal flame at the gravesite -- and her calm, stoical deportment, Jackie Kennedy nourished a desperately troubled world with a brilliant parade of images that drew from the classic art she knew and loved.

One of the most frequently reproduced photographs of the funeral captures a moment that couldn't have been predicted but in retrospect seems inevitable: the beautiful young mother stands, veiled, with the Kennedy family behind her and her two young children at her side as she patiently waits for her husband's coffin to be loaded onto a caisson. In its composition, its careful formal arrangement, the photo bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the foundational works of Western art, a frieze depicting the imperial procession on the Roman altar of peace dedicated to Emperor Augustus about 10 BC.

At the center of the frieze another beautiful veiled young mother stands nobly with her family around her and her children at her side. She epitomizes a graceful subordination of the familial to the political. Centuries later, the American painter Benjamin West re-created the scene and her emblematic dignity and purpose in a 1768 painting that depicts Agrippina, widow of the Roman general Germanicus, carrying his ashes and flanked by her children.

The pictures of Jackie and her children in 1963 echo these works forcefully, telling us a story we seem desperate to hear: Good can survive evil, family love transcends tragedy, patriotism and duty underscore humanity.

Is it hard to believe that viewers at the time made such connections? Tell that to the members of an art history class at Yale late in November 40 years ago. Their professor, art historian Jules Prown, was lecturing on Benjamin West when he flashed the slide of Agrippina and her children onto the screen in a darkened lecture hall. That was all it took. His students wept.

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