The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg exhibit, which examines the cinematic vision of the iconic American painter, opens tomorrow, July 2.
The impetus for this show came from filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Rockwell was an inspiration for both: the two filmmakers collect Rockwell’s paintings, drawings and sketches and exchange information about who is buying what. They let the museum select paintings from their private collections and are featured in a short film that accompanies the exhibit.
We tend to think of paintings and drawings as artistic mediums that only capture a moment in time, but Rockwell’s work disputes this notion. Lucas says Rockwell’s paintings taught him about storytelling and coming of age in our society. Spielberg sees Rockwell’s “Boy on a High Dive” (which shows a frightened boy on a diving board painting) as a metaphor for what we all experience when we consider embarking on a new adventure hung it in his office. One of Rockwell’s sons modeled for this painting on mock diving board his father constructed for that purpose. Close study shows that this painting’s perspective mimics a movie camera coming in for a close-up.
The public may not have been aware, but Rockwell’s process included setting up his images the same way a director puts together a scene for a movie. In the late 1930s, Rockwell began using photos to compose paintings in place of having models spend long hours posing. The exhibit’s curator Virginia Mecklenburg, who also put together the popular Edward Hopper exhibit, notes, “Rockwell’s strategies parallel those of movie directors.” He auditioned the “cast” for his paintings, selected costumes and even acted out each part for the models. (When you go to the exhibit, be sure to read the explanation for”The Gossip” very carefully.)
The exhibit highlights how Rockwell and Hollywood traded influences. Rockwell was inspired by the popular movies of his day, using their motifs and referencing them in his popular Saturday evening post covers in ways that readers were sure to recognize. (You may see echoes of Alfred Hitchcock in “The Connoisseur.”) After Rockwell used the daughter of a colleague as the model for painting depicting a glamorous actress (“Movie Starlet and Reporters”), the young woman who previously hadn’t been able to break into the movies was soon getting phone calls from major studios.
I’ll discuss how Rockwell’s painting’s are and are not accurate portraits of American society in another blog post later this week.
You can view the exhibit until January 2, 2011. The museum has planned programming and special events surrounding this show, including July 3 and July 4 performances with the big band sounds of the Airmen of Note.
If you are out of town and can’t make it to the museum, you can view a slideshow of the exhibit’s 57 artworks and a podcast with commentary from the Lucas, Spielberg and the curator on the museum’s website.