*Below is the initial musing … . For an edited version with repros: Reconsidering Norman Rockwell.
Looking at Rockwell paintings, and a show of photographs by Pops Peterson on view through May 2021, at the Norman Rockwell Museum
The work of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) resonates in new ways in the age of the Covid pandemic, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the Biden/Harris inauguration.
Prolonged pandemic relocation has led to explorations of art venues I probably never would have sought out otherwise—such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, located in the pre-Revolutionary-established village of Stockbridge, MA, by far the most popular museum in a region that encompasses The Clark and MassMoCA (according to mainstream touristic press in recent decades). Recent national events relative to what and who and where America has been and hopes for its future spurred me on.
Opened in 1969 with the facilitation of the artist, who spent the last two decades of his life in the town, the museum was reestablished on new grounds in 1993, along with Rockwell’s last studio. Since then Rockwell’s art historical and market stock has risen incrementally. Previously, art cognoscenti generally resisted consideration of Rockwell as a serious artist, per se. His populist success was his failure, to paraphrase Arthur C. Danto, who begged to differ, based mainly on Rockwell’s ability to tap emotion in viewers (google Danto, “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002). The millennial (final) fall of canonical modernism as the only path for artists who had their proverbial hand on the pulse of their times has also opened onto new critical looks at Rockwell. Straight away I will say that, beyond these somewhat dissipated debates about Rockwell’s intent as a painter (i.e., artist) on the one hand and an illustrator (aka picture-maker-for-hire) on the other, seeing his original paintings first hand if you know them only through repros and adaptations for print will probably effect your assessment of his oeuvre.
Rockwell has been best known, at least until recently, for idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His mid-century pictorial appeal (in dual senses) to viewers overlapped with emerging tropes in advertising and television programming; indeed, familiarity with timely iconographic cues were key to his quickly amassed faithful following, facilitated through his long affiliation with the Saturday Evening Post. Over 300 of his cover illustrations for the publication spanning five decades are on long-term view on the ground floor of the museum. The installation reads as a collective visual history of changing fashions, gadgets, transportation modes, public persons, holiday trends, and a mostly upbeat view of two world wars and their veterans. Beyond certain cliché settings and very light humor, and along with impressive, detailed realist style, Rockwell’s prosaic humanism (for lack of better term) seems to have rung true with diversifying viewers over time. In fact, his seeming knack for capturing human postures and expressions, and apparent technical skill were diligently nurtured through art school in his native Manhattan. From there, he relocated to rural Vermont, where he became famous as the Boy Scouts of America artist who immortalized the local ginger-headed kids, apple pie moms, Barney Fife policemen, et al., –in carefully arranged set-ups to be sure—carried to a climactic phase in Stockbridge.
Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, unabashedly, although he admired “fine artists,” especially historical painters, suggested in many paintings worth dissecting formally as well as thematically. These are found on the main floor, most ultimately related to Saturday Evening Post covers. Currently, as with most museums in the Covid era, exhibitions focus on works in the collection, sometimes in lieu of cancelled or postponed shows and open-ended. Here, several ostensibly discrete permanent and special displays run into each other–it doesn’t much matter the order in which one meanders through the apropos New England-Classical galleries. A tour de force is Shuffleton’s Barbership (1950), in terms of spatial illusion, narrative detail and simulated texture–far more complex than a functional printing guide need be. (It’s on view here via long-term loan agreement from the Los Angeles Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in 2018 after its controversial deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum of Art). Apparently deferring to the demands of producing lucrative mass media, Rockwell exhibited paintings intermittently but sold relatively few; thus, the cache he had in store for posterity here.
Several galleries comprise an abridged version of a previously traveling exhibition, “Imagining Freedom,” and includes graphics by peer artists of the WWII era in the museum’s expanded collection. The star is Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series of four paintings and related studies and resultant prints. Based on points enumerated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 address to the nation and created to be issued as posters to raise funds for the war effort, the series secured Rockwell’s national ubiquity—and makes a great case for art directly effecting social action, judging by public response. Perhaps the most famous, Freedom from Want, aka the “Thanksgiving” painting (although other of his works include “Thanksgiving” in their titles and this one does not), benefits in person from the nuanced perspective that seats you at the depicted dinner table. This work has been as copiously appropriated in diverse visual culture as its precedent kin, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).
Today Rockwell is increasingly known for his late forays into topical Civil-Rights subjects, which led to his break with the Saturday Evening Post and an affiliation with the more forward-looking magazine, Look. Prominently, The Problem we all Live With (1963) has generated an enormous amount of brilliant academic and pedagogic, as well as popular coverage in the past decade, furthered by an extended loan to the White House during the Barack Obama years, and the increasing activism of Ruby Bridges, whose seminal case of grade school integration in New Orleans inspired the painting. What could be more relevant than the 2020 Democratic debate in which Kamala Harris stated to Joe Biden her similar experience with busing in California? In fact a substantial amount of political cartooning and a brilliant manipulated photo meme by Bria Goeller (google it) on the incident referred back Rockwell’s painting. Standing in front of it was quite moving, the internal scale of the giant cropped guards against the child especially impactful at eye level. Rockwell photographed several young girls to model in a white dress he had created to develop the final composition, which helps qualify his brand of realism and complicates his intentions and ours in excavating its latent layered messages. Among his last works, studies and paintings from a loose series based on several brutal Civil Rights murders, are highlighted in a separate presentation.
The museum also mounts small special group and solo exhibitions of other historical and contemporary artists. On my visit, a big bonus was an intro to Pops Peterson, a Stockbridge artist who riffs on Rockwell with photo-based works printed on canvas to simulate (imo), a light impasto characteristic of Rockwell’s paintings (only discernible in person in both artists’ cases). Especially acute is Peterson’s version of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear, which foregrounds particular concerns of African American families as far as domestic safety, and an updated take on The Problem we all Live With, which reflects on its unfinished business after the Michael Brown police shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, MO. All in all a highly thought-provoking excursion.