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Is it possible for a work of art to look cutting-edge and dated at the same time? The images in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit “In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio” manage this odd feat. They served as cover art for the New York Daily News’ Sunday magazine during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s–and they were in color, a groundbreaking format at the time. That’s the cutting-edge part. The dated part comes from the technique. The images were made using the complicated “carbro” process, which required three simultaneous black and white exposures, each filtered to separate out either red, blue or green; to modern eyes, carbro prints have the retro cast of Technicolor movies. The technique doesn’t allow for a lot of spontaneity; a number of the images are positively hokey, such as the portrait of Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd riding a swing against a fake-sky background, and one of women’s tennis star Alice Marble posing mid-swing in a thoroughly unrealistic indoor setting. As a result, the portraits that show a personal spark are impressive: Orson Welles broadcasting with piercingly focused eyes (below); W.C. Fields clad in clashing plaids, holding a foamy mug and sporting a beer mustache; Jimmy Durante exuberantly joshing in front of the camera; and Ethel Waters buoyantly chomping a corncob pipe and sporting a frayed straw hat. The finest image, though, is the 1949 portrait of Jackie Robinson (top). Two years after his major-league debut, Robinson appears as steely as you might expect, a look that’s perfectly balanced by the soft-focus pale blues and greens in the background.
The exhibition is on view 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to Sept. 9 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets NW. Free.