The Power of a Face

In previous posts I’ve written how my father, Bernard Safran became a Time Magazine portrait cover artist in 1957 (see Getting in the Door at Time Inc).

Several famous artists were already working for the weekly magazine when my Dad was hired, including Boris Artzybasheff, Robert Vickrey, Boris Chaliapin and Henry Koerner.

Artzybasheff and Chaliapin befriended my father when he joined “the stable” of Time’s portrait artists, and they called themselves the Three Russians.

Other artists who created cover art while my Dad was there include (in 1965 alone) Marc Chagall, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn, Bernard Buffet, Tamayo, and Andy Warhol. So doing Time Magazine covers was a pretty respected achievement.

Time Magazine covers were meant to be compelling on newsstands and to communicate quickly to the viewer what the lead story was about. To do this the background art was often reduced to an easily recognizable image or symbol: a hammer and sickle for Russia; a flag for the European Economic Union and so on.

In many cases my father chose the content behind the head himself to emphasize the unique qualities of the person – and sometimes, to reinforce his feelings about the individual… such was the case with the portrait of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. My father abhorred the man and its obvious in this portrait – he painted Eichmann in as unsympathetic a way that he could – lizard like; the color of death; unrepentant; surrounded by a non representational background suggestive of black ash and red flame.

unpublished Time cover portrait commissioned for Eichmann's arrest and trial Bernard Safran, March 1961

unpublished Time cover portrait of Adolph Eichmann
Bernard Safran, March 1961

This use of thematic props and background images falls well within the tradition of portraiture – think of the portraits of Holbein, John Singleton Copely, Vermeer, David Hockney and Cindy Sherman – in many of their portraits (including self portraits) the artists show the interests and attributes of the sitter by including props, symbols or settings that amplify the character’s interests and qualities.

And, if its a good portrait it will also embody the unique personality of the sitter through the physical qualities of the person: the gestures and expression, the posture, the set of the facial features, the hair – making the head and whatever amount of the body that’s shown, the most compelling part of the painting.

My father was particularly adept at making the heads appear three dimensional because of the way he painted the form of the head and the texture and color of the skin through his use of paint.

If you go to the Time Archives and look through the covers from the period in which my father worked, I guarantee that you can see his portraits pop out of the crowd – his heads are fully formed, expressive people full of emotions, opinions and energy.

He approached each portrait with the same amount of intuitive attention, and gave each the same amount of… shall I say love?

The cover portrait was compelling just by itself – it could subtly impact public opinion by means of its emotional impact on the viewer…  was this person good or bad, strong or weak – should we like them or not?

detail of Time's1960 Man of the Year - President Eisenhower by Bernard Safran

detail of Time’s 1960 Man of the Year cover
President Dwight D. Eisenhower by Bernard Safran
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

The portraits could be heroic like the one my father painted of President Eisenhower (a man he greatly admired) or cold and unpleasant like the one of Indonesia’s military dictator Achmad Sukarno.

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 - source Time Archives

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 – source Time Archives

The portrait of Sukarno was one of the first portraits my father did for Time in 1958, and it was so unflattering to Sukarno that the leader was incensed by the cover.

The reaction so pleased the senior editors that they decided to bring my father on full time with a guaranteed number of cover portraits per year on the condition that he work exclusively for the corporation.

My father always said it was much harder to paint someone he didn’t like – because his personal feelings came across so clearly in the final work despite himself.

In upcoming posts I’ll focus more on individual covers and the stories my father told about them.

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