The new Norman Rockwell show at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is, among many things, a delight. But there’s a fallacy at work, too, and no one’s made a peep about it. Least of all the New York Times, which I am currently eying with a distrustful, wary eye and will get to in a moment.
The good? Norman Rockwell was a masterful visual narrator, and the exhibition’s minimalist attitude toward wall text, save for a few inane quotes from Rockwell collectors Steven Spielberg and especially George Lucas (who both have manifested interesting reflections on Rockwell in interviews, which makes the quote selection all the more disappointing), showcases this talent.
Rockwell’s ability to “tell entire stories in a single, frozen image,” in Spielberg’s words, is a lost art. It’s an illustrator’s gift, and Rockwell was the best of all illustrators. We still tell stories in pictures, but they unfold in sequences, or come with subtitles (comic books, comic strips, New Yorker covers). For an image, much less a “fine arts” painting, to carry an entire account of an eight year old’s first, monumental visit to Mom’s fancy salon one Saturday afternoon, and her surprised, ebullient delight at this stylish coiffure — well that’s rare.
Or there’s this one, which perfectly, effortlessly captures Miss Jones’s proud, fond smile at her pupils. She’s positively beaming at them. They’ve remembered her birthday, carpeting the edge of her desk with apples, flowers, and wrapped gifts, and the pack of them have scrawled “Happy birthday!” across the blackboard — clearly intending to surprise her and now settled into their seats with an innocent air of “What?” while the dropped chalk gives them all away. And since I’ve been on Miss Jones’s end of happy surprise, I’m inclined to think she’s impressed, thinking to herself, Well, look how sweet they are when they try. The painting is simple, but lavishly detailed, and it’s an accomplishment. And many more follow this pattern.
But there’s a real problem here, too, and if the museum was admirably hands-off in letting viewers explore the stories for their own sake, without chiming in with biographical irrelevancies, it seriously dropped the ball somewhere else.
Nowhere in this beautiful show do the curators mention why Rockwell created these images — or for whom. They don’t talk about the commissions, or the fact that these pictures were carefully and purposefully constructed. You’re left to assume that Rockwell was simply mirroring the reality of his own time. And you are wrong. As Lucas says, “[Rockwell] captures the emotion and more importantly the fantasy, the ideal of that particular time in American history” (emphasis mine).
Everyone considers Rockwell the quintessential painter of Americana. Rockwell equals hand-crafted toys, malt shops and homemade ice cream parlors, fishing trips with Dad and bundt cakes with Mom, pigtails and gingham blouses, golden retrievers, and playing baseball in the street until dark. That was the word on the street in the galleries, in the exhibition’s comment book, and in the Times’s disappointingly shallow review, which avers, “This exhibition offers us the chance to step out of the vast marble-white spaces of Washington and into a world where Americans convene in old-fashioned drugstores and barbershops, conducting themselves with a sense of integrity and fair play, with gumption and whimsy.”
It’s as though everyone forgot about context and what exactly an illustrator does. Rockwell created these images for a magazine. They were cover images, and the job of a cover image is to sell the magazine. These images were appealingly nostalgic in the year of their creation. They were, precisely, not reflective of the contemporary reality. For example, people didn’t make toys by hand in 1920 (above image). The Industrial Revolution had already happened! This painting depicts a revival moment in toy-making. Nowadays, people look at the date — 1920 — and think, “Ah, the 1920s, those were the days”, when audiences in the 1920s, too, were looking and thinking “Oh, the 1870s, those were the days.” There’s a distance between Rockwell and his subjects that’s gotten flattened with time. This exhibition does nothing to rectify that.
It is no slight to Rockwell’s artistry to say that much of his work — and almost all of it in this exhibition — was created for immediate public consumption, like a magazine cover or calendar, and as such it had to cater to the tastes of the broadest possible audience. The Times ran the above image as an encapsulation of Rockwell’s oeuvre and, by extension, the real America he painted. But they never mention that this painting was a commission BY the Boy Scouts FOR their annual calendar. That changes things. It wasn’t conceived to succinctly illustrate traditional American values; it was conceived to satisfy a patron’s request. It’s marketing.
Here’s another. The stuff of which memories are made. Mother and children, praying together. Surely an apt depiction of an American tradition that we, we corrupted, twenty-first century souls, have lost. Of course, it’s a beautiful, evocative painting. But it was also commissioned by a lighting company. It’s the America that the lighting company wanted you to imagine (while you bought their bulbs) — not necessarily Rockwell’s, and certainly not Rockwell’s unfettered meditation on life in 1922.
Pretending that Rockwell’s art was created to factually document small-town life as he knew it does him a disservice. The man wasn’t just painting what he saw; he was creating a mythology of America that has, for better of worse, acquired the label of “history.” Or “nostalgia.” But never what it actually was: creative license and and a constructed reality. “Rockwell’s no imaginative force, but he sure can document” — talk about damning with faint praise.
And it’s not fair to contemporary viewers, either. Because then they’re left to wander these fabulously beautiful galleries thinking, “Oh, remember that?/Oh, would you look at that. Times were so much better then,” completely forgetting the big advancements made since mid-century that make 2010 so golly-be great. It sets up a competition between then and now, and what can win against nostalgia? Is it productive to even try? I’d rather enjoy the art for what it is — designed for the broadest popular appeal and no less accomplished or lovely for it — and enjoy how far we’ve come. Civil rights, the Internet, cheap plane travel and not having to wear stockings in the summer: you never looked so good.