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Books and Culture

Ryan L. Cole
The Storyteller
A Norman Rockwell exhibit captures the artist’s deep understanding of America.
27 August 2010

At a recent visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” which opened in July, a queue snaked from the show’s entrance into the Old Patent Building’s Kogod Courtyard. Inside, visitors jostled for space in front of images that provoked, not the hushed reverence that one would expect at a museum, but movie-theater reactions—outbursts of laughter, expressions of emotion.

Critics would likely seize upon the sight to observe that popular approval does not equal artistic quality, especially when the art in question is insufficiently socially aware. Certainly that’s the view of Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, who in reviewing the show derided Rockwell as the cowardly, “aw, shucks” epitome of Middle America. Rockwell “doesn’t challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes,” wrote Gopnik. “From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.”

This perception of the artist’s work as soothing sentiment for the masses is nothing new, but “Telling Stories” proves it simplistic. The show, drawn from the collections of fellow storytellers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, confirms that Rockwell had a deep understanding of America’s character and a masterly ability to convey it to canvas. True, his vision focused on our virtues, not our sins. But only in the self-loathing landscape of contemporary intellectual thought would that be cause for criticism.

Working from meticulously staged photographs, Rockwell used small, easily recognizable scenarios to create plot-driven vignettes of American life. His paintings, prints, and sketches celebrate family, tradition, democracy, and freedom. Here are malt shops and marbles champs; young boys running from home and young men returning from war; romance, new and old; and inspirational national figures, past and present. These are not snapshots from a whitewashed fantasy but pictures from a world that still exists, full of values and principles we still need.

In “The Runaway,” from 1958, a young boy sits perched on a soda-fountain stool, his worldly belongings folded into a knapsack resting on the floor; he chats with a sympathetic policeman and an amused soda jerk. Despite the title, it’s doubtful the boy will end up far from home, but his flight represents a youthful desire for independence. In “Back to Civvies” (1945), we see an older boy headed in a different direction. It shows a soldier, freshly returned from war and grown into adulthood, settling into a bedroom full of the accoutrements of adolescence—fishing rods, pennants, model planes, pinups of starlets—and stretching into the civilian clothes he has now outgrown. The painting, like Rockwell’s famous “Homecoming,” which depicted a G.I. greeted by a tenement full of friends and family at war’s end, recreates a scene that played out thousands of times for those lucky enough to return home from combat. With a few changes, it still plays out today.

Though its subjects often coincide with and chronicle events of the twentieth century, Rockwell’s work touches on timeless, universal emotions and aspirations. In the foreground of “Boy Reading Adventure Story” (1923), a child, draped in shadows, studies a novel (perhaps Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur). In the background, a distant, dreamy pastel image of the boy heroically mounted on a steed, suited in knightly armor, a beautiful maiden nearby, projects his mind’s eye.

Real heroes are represented here as well. In “And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable,” also from 1923, the frontiersman, in coonskin cap and fringed jacket, seeps like a cloud from a young author’s typewriter. “A Time for Greatness” captures a more contemporary and tragic figure of national adulation. The painting, published by Look in 1964 as a memorial, depicts the fallen John F. Kennedy leaning on a convention podium, gazing toward the never-realized New Frontier.

Rockwell’s work also celebrated civic engagement and its accompanying liberties, as in his famous depiction of the Four Freedoms (of Worship and Speech, and from Want and Fear) that Franklin D. Roosevelt set out in his 1941 State of the Union address. The series, published in 1943 and subsequently used to sell war bonds, is represented in the exhibit by a sketchy, early draft of “Freedom of Speech,” which shows a man, surrounded by fellow citizens, rising to speak at a town-hall meeting.

To Gopnik and other critics, this rendering is emblematic of all that is wrong with Rockwell. Why celebrate interchangeable Americans participating in harmless, small-scale civic duty? Because in America, as Rockwell knew, democracy is most often found in school-board, city-council, and town-hall meetings. It takes courage to stand up in a crowd of friends, family, and neighbors and make an argument for or against something. Rockwell was right to celebrate those willing to take public stands on issues; without them, the American idea falls apart. And though not featured in the exhibit, paintings like “The Problem We All Live With” and “Murder in Mississippi,” which championed the civil rights movement, proved that Rockwell’s vision of America was hardly reactionary or blind to changing times.

But it took integrity for Rockwell to continue to paint in his traditional style amid the postmodernist convulsions that elevated abstraction over realism and artistic angst over subject matter. He continued to celebrate virtues that came increasingly under attack amid the self-doubt of the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most fitting coda for Rockwell, then, is “The Connoisseur.” In this work from 1962, an older man, dressed in the formal attire of an older generation, examines a Jackson Pollockesque painting. This forms a kind of self-portrait: Rockwell the connoisseur gazes at a new generation of trendsetters, but holds fast to his own style, now hopelessly out of date.

Near the exhibit’s exit, guests are encouraged to put down their thoughts in a small spiral notebook. A quick glance through the pages shows the words “memories,” “laughter,” “tears,” and “inspiring” used repeatedly, and all followed by “thank you.” Let there be no doubt: Rockwell’s work still holds the power to move its viewers, to stir their imaginations, and beam back a bit of their own reflection. And it continues to remind Americans of the ideals and dreams that we share.

Ryan L. Cole writes from Indianapolis on politics and culture.

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