Rockwell Exhibit Brings Surprises
Artist and illustrator, historian and humanitarian, populist, egoist, champion of civil rights, social commentator. All or some, Norman Rockwell remains more American than apple pie — and equally beloved.
Step right up and see the really big show. “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” plays through January at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. All 323 Saturday Evening Post covers make an appearance, along with works representing Rockwell’s darker side.
The retrospective begins near the end of the New England illustrator’s career. After complying with the Post’s editorial policy that African-Americans appear in subservient roles only, in 1965 Rockwell — now affiliated with Look magazine — created a searing image titled “Southern Justice: Murder in Mississippi,” which depicts the brutal slaying of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. Nearby hangs a painting of a white boy being served by a black dining car waiter, then one of federal marshals escorting a black girl to school.
The juxtaposition is powerful.
Viewers may be surprised by a youthful, clean-shaven attorney Abraham Lincoln in court; also portraits of Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower and Nixon in a high definition mode reminiscent of famed photographer Yousuf Karsh, who immortalized Rockwell smoking his pipe in 1958.
Thirty-two years after Rockwell’s death, the debate over fine versus commercial art continues. He did, after all, accept commissions from Kellogg’s cereal.
“(Rockwell) captured moments of shared experience in American life — but never completely got his due,” said NCMA director Larry Wheeler at a recent press preview.
Museum curator John Coffey cites scholarly opinions of Rockwell’s work, including one from author Vladimir Nabokov: “Salvador Dali is really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by Gypsies in babyhood.” From historian Richard Halpern: “Rockwell fills his mayonnaise world with dark and disturbing details, which he then dares the viewer to acknowledge.”
Details, details. Most are not dark. Inspect a Post cover published the week of April Fool’s, where much is cleverly amiss.
Once past the serious side a more familiar Rockwell — creator of freckle-faced boys and kindly grandparents — emerges. Each work suggests a story or chronicles a life passage, which is why filmmaker Steven Spielberg, a Rockwell collector, compares the paintings to movie scenes with poignant endings.
Rockwell, Coffey continues, has been criticized for idealizing American life, “for what he did not show.” Critiques evaporate before the Four Freedoms inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s address during World War II. Rockwell, ineligible for the draft, chose to express his patriotism through art. “Freedom From Want,” a Thanksgiving family gathering, is arguably the most recognizable image in contemporary American painting.
The display in the East Building’s new special exhibitions gallery spills over into a gift shop of Rockwell merchandise, a lounge area with Rockwellian décor and interactive games and family fare in the Rockwell Cafe.
Think of a Norman Rockwell show as a homecoming filled with characters from cherished childhood books or, perhaps, townspeople of Mayberryland. His themes affirm what we hope happened in the past: Budding sexuality is innocent, soldiers return to their families, Christmas is jolly — unless a small boy finds a Santa suit in his dad’s drawer.
Humor, whimsy, insight, Americana. Art needn’t be ponderous or obscure. Sometimes, a Norman Rockwell postcard does just fine.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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