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Norman Rockwell: Pictures
Chicago Historical Society
A controversial artist, even today. And controversy has followed him for decades. Prestigious bastions of Art, 'High' and 'Low,' museums and galleries, have refused to show his retrospective. And even the Chicago Tribune felt compelled to run dual reviews -- Pro and Contra -- of the current exhibition scheduled to run until May 21st at the Chicago Historical Society. Norman Rockwell... Or, as many would have it, Norman Rockwell !?! Yes, "Pictures for the American People" has arrived: Seventy oil paintings, all 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as studies in oil and pencil, and photographs.
One should note that it isn't -- necessarily -- Norman Rockwell's politics or religious views that are so often attacked or disdained. He was what in any milieu one would have to call 'a decent man,' and in many instances, courageous. His painting, The Problem We All Live With appeared on the cover of Look magazine on January 14, 1964. It infuriated some, heartened the hopes of others, shamed many, and was met with indifference or scorn by the Art Establishment. The Problem We All Live With strikes directly at the heart and exemplifies Rockwell's hallmark approach: strong horizontals, close foreground, and, especially, telling details which draw the viewer into concluding a narrative, one orchestrated to move him. The perceptive viewer notes not only the confident posture and countenance of the young girl -- her escorts are cropped and anonymous agents of the law -- but the writ in the pocket of the advancing guard, the contrast of schoolbooks with the graffiti on the wall, the smashed tomato (the least of projectiles launched in those times). It is an approach common to centuries of fine art, emblematic and immediate. But Rockwell's concern at this date is not doctrine, or delight: he stirs a decent empathy, a quietly powerful outrage.
It was not always so; but it was so in the Sixties. Rockwell's Moving In (cover of Look Magazine, May 16, 1967) or The Golden Rule, an oil painting commissioned for a Post cover (April 1, 1961) attest to his ever-growing involvement with social justice and his concern that all be accorded tolerance and equal access to opportunity. In the latter instance, he might have done another April Fool's piece. He had done many in the past: witness April Fools (Post, April 3, 1943) -- the height of WWII, when he did so much for the war against Hitler ("The Four Freedoms" series brought in an amazing $132,992,539 in war bonds) (Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator: Curtis Publishing: 1979). Rockwell cannot be faulted for 'bourgeois deviationism' nor even 'political incorrectness.' (He was even acclaimed in the U.S.S.R., much to his own confusion.) Further, none in the Art echelons particularly condemn art when it scrapes the 'political,' at least, not if it supports their brand; nor are artists generally disdained for being 'apolitical,' which, in many senses, Rockwell was not. He was most assuredly a Constitutionalist, certainly by sentiment. (That latter term is important.)
Norman Rockwell's foremost interest, apart from and above doing 'good art' and earning a living from it, was the average and typical, if not ideal, American. That was his forte. He knew it well because he probed, investigated, researched and shared in it. Like many of the 'native' product -- Thomas Hart Benton (who rejected the European repertoire), Grant Wood, Winslow Homer, and the Wyeths, the (very non-W.A.S.P) Raphael Soyer -- Norman Rockwell lived for the human creature within an American experience. That the human was foremost in his focus is clear. One need only look with intelligent consideration at Girl at the Mirror (Oil on canvas: 1954). One journalist branded it 'caricature.' Another termed it 'petty female.' Neither lived the experience, 'subliminally,' vicariously or in actuality. Rockwell does 'theatricise.' Most artists select, refine, distill, even interpret -- 'theatricise' -- to impart their insight. (One doubts if Michelangelo saw God tippy-touching Adam... does the image communicate less?) And certainly, most artists do hope to make a living at their art, and where they didn't the art elite generally, at a safe distance, commiserated. At least, post-factum.
One almost senses in Girl at the Mirror an affinity, but very much Americanized, with Auguste Rodin's She who was once the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife (1888). Both contemplate the inevitable progress of time. And both, in socialite's terms, are not of any appreciable 'better sort.' It cannot be the contemplation of the human condition which so enrages the grandees of the 'Art World' in Rockwell's native land: that has been an accepted motif throughout art history, and remains so even in a nation which values Carpe Diem above Memento Morii. Ivan Albright's 1929 Into The World There Came a Soul Named Ida, a kindred theme, delights American critics. Both Rodin (once similarly 'controversial') and Albright (soon accepted) chose age and beauty lost. Rockwell gracefully focused on the common concern of an American teenager about her future attractiveness. Rockwell differs in worldview. But the prejudice, and it is indeed an American prejudice, must lie elsewhere.
As a young student in America, I spent one lucrative summer at a Bethlehem Steel mill. Among Italians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Blacks, and 'True 'Mercans,' there were indeed bigotries, but on the whole people got along. In the mills, their lives depended on it. And in the canteen was Rockwell's The Horseshoe Forging Contest (Post: November 2, 1940). Rockwell was pretty much everywhere -- calenders, clippings, whatevers. All agreed on and with that. And, not much later, as an associate editor for a small ethnic newspaper chain, I saw Rockwell in the homes of those who could not speak English. In Germany, England, France, Eastern Europe... Rockwell was, and still is spokesman for the American Dream. They took the idealization as an ideal, not a strict reality; although in retrospect, there was more grounding in real-life than it is now fashionable to admit. America has not become kinder and gentler. But clearly, Rockwell captured something... spoke to something. But what... and why the 'controversy'?
In part, the controversy, this 'tempest in a martini,' may well arise within what passes for intelligentsia in America. George Orwell, in writing about pre-WWII English 'intellectuals,' noted : "It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box." ("The Lion and the Unicorn": 1941). Chicagoan Alan Bloom, speaking of Post-WWII Yankee attitudes, observed that "Marxists were becoming perilously close to the notion that egalitarian man as such is bourgeois, and that they must join him or become culture snobs." (The Closing of The American Mind: 1987). Several years ago, Northwestern University invited intellectuals from the former Socialist Bloc to meet with American academics and culturati. The latter complained of America's 'anti-intellectualism,' without ever once questioning their own role or attitudes; complained to men and women who lived, led and had just renewed their respective nation's cultural and social lifeblood.
Which is not to say that the manufactories of art taste and testament find nothing to move, enliven or inspire them in Rockwell's art... but that where such does emerge, it is kept a 'closet' indulgence, much like that box of bon-bons behind the bourbon, or one's pre-marital love letters; or the Beardsley, Bouguereau, Fragonard, Hogarth, Renoir, Rodin, or whoever else 'is not an artist' by current favor. Which is encouraging; Orwell's culturati were wholly sold to "their severance from the common culture of the country." Here, in 1973, the Museum of Contemporary Art did host a Rockwell retrospective, hosted it to record attendance (counting response, and not just receipts). To what does Norman Rockwell speak and why the 'tempest in a tumbler?'
The charge of 'sweetness and light,' of honeyed sentimentality must be faced. And there is the (now) denigrating allegation of 'idealization.' Or mercantile 'commercialization'; and -- let's throw in the proverbial kitchen sink -- illustrator craftsmanship (Milords, how low!). It does no good to counterplead 'popular reception' or endurance. "I don't know art, but I know what I like" is used by anyone to excuse anything (it is even heard among denizens of the haute monde). It isn't popularity which makes Rockwell vital.
'Sentimentality': The middle-class analog to better people's 'affectations.' Both are affective responses out of proportion to the object at hand -- responses which theologians and philosophers call 'inordinate,' i.e. against the ordo amoris -- proper perspectives. Art dances the thin and narrow line, but, when it breathes, it strikes on the mark... and it strikes deep. Contrast sentimentality with affectation -- one throbs inordinately at what would be a sincere emotion, while the other pretends to be profoundly moved by what is cold at the core. The thing about both is that, if practiced consistently and long enough, each takes on a reality of its own. Neither is a refutation of the other. They are both mayflies of a single day.
Among average Americans, Albrecht Durer's Praying Hands is much loved (and reproduced). The same is true of Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Worship. Ages differ, and it is hard to imagine that Germanized Hungarian, Durer, conceiving of Rockwell's world of 'melting pot' admixtures or societal ideals. Durer had fragmenting Christendom, Rockwell had prospering America: both were true believers. That can't be held against them, or rather, it is to say that the bourgeois Republic is not quite the same theme as the unending salvation of eternal souls and the Age of Princes. Durer and Rockwell are masters in technique. The reservations, and rationalizations, among many art functionaries find no support in 'idealization' per se, or in who, prince or publisher, commissions art; and to fault Rockwell for a consummate technique and prodigious work ethic would dismiss most of history's artworks. A questioner is ultimately reduced to personality. Here, it must be granted -- the earliest Rockwell is indeed diversion and delight; excellently crafted, on demand, but always with an awareness and respect, even affection for American ways. Like much art throughout the centuries, it was meant to be enjoyed and, if one is honest, still is. Why?
New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl was won over by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's admiration for Rockwell, concluding that the American images are "one-frame movies packed with storytelling. They're very sweet, but they're not treacly." (ArtNews: Sept., 1999) Rockwell's art is very American. And very human. True, it may be anecdotal and technically deliberate -- like much pre-Twentieth century painting, Greek theater, or Japanese Kabuki, but Rockwell's is a democratic art. And, as Alan Bloom points out about the fears of the Yankee Marxists, the democrat is The Bourgeois. But the bourgeois, like Rockwell, even in the republic seeks more, something transcendent and better than the immediate humdrum scraping here and now and at hand. Rockwell accepted, opted the cynics would say, for the American dream. Thomas S. Buechner, author of several books on Rockwell and former director of the Brooklyn Museum has said: "He painted glorious, bathetic pictures of middle-class America as it wanted to see itself." (Not so different, in desire, from the Medicis.) That may well be what so infuriates the art nomenklatura. Rockwell expressed the American dream, a middle-class hope and desire, and did it well. More than anything else, it is this which sets him apart from Durer, Rodin, and the modern European experiments. And Norman Rockwell got paid for a lot of hard work and dedication. How dare he! (How dare that artist/citizen of the Res Pvblicae!) However, it is yet to be proven that the 'Polymorphous Perverse' is more amenable to the body politic than the 'girl next door and apple pie.' And, for better or worse, life does tend to seek models in art. None of which explains his appeal. It merely sheds light on his critics.
Orwell pointed out: "The intellectual is different from the ordinary man, but only in certain sections of his personality, and even then not all the time." ("Rudyard Kipling": 1942). Even Andy Warhol returned home from Campbell's (TM) soup cans and Brillo (TM) to his Rockwell portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. (Yes, Warhol collected it.) Perhaps, if there were a blank Sistine Chapel in the U.S., or a Medici, Rockwell would be less controversial among the art officers. But Alexis de Tocqueville doubted the democratic republic could ever produce a Pascal or a da Vinci. Echt America produced Rockwell, and he lifted illustration, again, into fine art. To realize that, one need only look at the art, each piece on its own terms, and judge. Artist James F.McComb said: "In the final analysis, though, Rockwell was a painter pure and simple," adding "Rockwell set a standard of excellence any would be pleased to attain." (Chicago Tribune: Feb. 20, 2000). He is not so harshly judged by artists themselves (and showed he could be an advocate of many among them.) And artist Ben Shahn will prove correct when he told Rockwell's son Peter, now a sculptor in Rome, "Your father is going to be remembered when all the rest of us are forgotten." (ArtNews: Sept.,1999).
Rockwell was born in 1894, began his art career at 16, and worked pretty much until he died in 1978. In his final decades (a chronology to ponder), Norman Rockwell did achieve an art with power and purpose. Like the 17th century Dutch genre painters (the Vermeers and Steens Rockwell admired), he danced the borders of sentimentality and continued through to admirable, if middle-class, heights. He was mid-Twentieth century America. One may sneer at his visceral commitments, as some do, but take away a man's dreams, and all you have is an ape with ingenuity. Rockwell has produced some truly moving, fine art. And so some of the academic pundits, the museum functionaries, the newspaper writers may carp and affect conniptions that Norman Rockwell is merely a taste like chocolates or Kipling... but if some of the art should stir the heart, don't feel embarrassed. In some way, somewhere and at times, we all hide a box of chocolates and a book of ballads, Cognoscenti AND commoners alike. Human citizens of a middle-class republic, where everyone in fact wants a better world than what he sees.
"Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" opened in November at the High Museum, Atlanta, and after Chicago, proceeds to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The San Diego Museum of Art, The Phoenix Art Museum, The Norman Rockwell Museum and finally to the Guggenheim in November 2001. There is a large illustrated catalogue for $35.00. The Chicago showing is scheduled to run until May 21st at the Chicago Historical Society: Seventy oil paintings, all 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as studies in oil and pencil, and photographs. Go see for yourself. Relax. Enjoy.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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