Saturday, May 01, 2010

Misunderstood American Masters #2: Norman Rockwell

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then any randomly selected Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover could replace pages of scornful academic writing about the spiritual danger of kitsch and the aesthetic disease of sentimentality. For most people, Rockwell defines ‘corny’. He’s become a generic term, the commercial branding for the fake and the trite. Kleenex means facial tissue, Thermos means vacuum flask; and Rockwell means cheese.

Rockwells’s paintings are lies – the world he depicts never existed. Doctors never humored little girls by giving stethoscope examinations to their dolls; jovial policemen never sat chatting at the soda counter with cute runaway little boys (complete with all belongings tied into a scarf at the end of a stick). Boy Scouts may indeed salute the flag, but not generally while standing in front of the Liberty Bell. When members of the tea-party movement whine about taking their country back, this is the country they’re talking about – the idealized, homey, sugar sweet middle America of Normal Rockwell. But no one likes a steady diet of sweets and this man’s work could put a hypo-glycemic into a diabetic coma.

That’s the critical consensus as we move tentatively into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

I won’t say it’s wrong, but I will say it’s wrong headed. It’s simplistic. It’s incomplete. Of course he produced hundreds, even thousands of sentimental icons – gossips and baseball players and big turkey dinners: that was his job. He was an illustrator, and he was proud to be an illustrator. He was one of the best, ever. But he was also an artist, and he could have been a great one, right up there with Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, if he had made different choices. No, you can’t deny the cascade of saccharine imagery, revealing what Orwell referred to as “A talent that extends no farther then the wrist”. Orwell was talking about Salvadore Dali, about whom who Nabokov famously remarked that he was “Norman Rockwell abducted by gypsies as a child.” But there are other pictures, only few, perhaps, but more than enough of them to rehabilitate his reputation, where the purity of his feeling and the skill of his art came together like a storm surf wave hitting the backwash from the steep beach, and lifting into something wild and unique and unrepeatable.

I have always been haunted by a painting called “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, which depicts a pick-up nighttime jam session in the back room of titular Vermont establishment, just glimpsed through an open door. Part of it is the detail, the hanging clippers, the leaning broom, the old fashioned barber chairs slumbering in the late autumn darkness. It seems like late autumn in that painting, with the fire smoldering in the woodstove. And then there’s the sense of small town intimacy, together with the sharp spike of exclusion: we are staring through the window-mullions that subtly frame the image, perhaps drawn by the faint sound of fiddle music, eternally on the outside, looking in. It’s a vision of community, with a note of isolation like a minor key change from that bluegrass violin. You want to try the lock, (of course the shop will be open), slip inside, and listen for a while. But you start off down the deserted street again, buttoning the top button of your coat. Winter is coming on. There’s a chilly wind blowing off the mountains.

Then there’s “Freedom from Fear”, the second and most affecting of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series. Though not the most famous – the praying heads, gaunt working man standing up to make a point at town meeting, the giant roast turkey brought to the table by the smiling grandma (“Freedom to Worship”, “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedom from Want”) are all better known – and more simplistic. It’s hard to imagine Rockwell’s craggy proletarian rising to fight the Domestic Partnership article on the warrant, or a squabbling miserable family, barely assembled and bickering, at that Thanksgiving table. Do any of those worshipping folk have an abused alter-boy in the family? I don’t think so. That’s not Rockwell’s world. But just when Rockwell’s world begins to seem hopelessly, absurdly, cornball, he gives the one more picture in the series: a mother and father tucking their two small children into bed for the night. There’s no hype in this picture, none of the forced sentimentality that mars the other pictures: the father didn’t even put his newspaper down before joining his wife in the nightly ritual (they had evening newspapers in those days). But it speaks volumes to me -- and, I suspect, to every other parent who has had the privilege of performing that simple daily ceremony.

Finally, I love Rockwell’s clear-eyed and unblinking conscience, his tough, New England political acuity (The “Middle America” slight was always a few thousand miles off: he lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Look at his de-segregation painting, “Problem We All Live With”. A negro girl (this was 1964, the cover of Look Magazine) walks to school in what is obviously her best white dress, clutching her books, surrounded with a four-man honor guard to protect her from the rabid bigots just out of the picture (about where we’re standing, looking at the painting, actually). The work is rendered subtly from her point of view, though presented at some distance from the stark parade. Rockwell’s image emerges from the little girl’s height – all we only see the men from the neck down, making us feel small and vulnerable, pulling us into her perspective. She’s a tiny heroine ... but she’s also just another kid, nervous about her first day at school. Somehow Rockwell evokes the big picture of America’s fraying social fabric and still presents the tiny exact specific reality of one moment in a little girl’s life, simultaneously.

Well, I promised myself I’d keep this talk of pictures to a thousand words and I’m about to go over my limit. That’s OK, though.

The pictures speak for themselves.

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