“A cover should be more than just a one-line joke.” -Norman Rockwell
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, which opened July 2, wants to educate people about Rockwell’s cinematic vision and change public perception of the iconic American artist, who is often viewed as saccharine and an idealist.
In the film that accompanies the exhibit, Spielberg says that as a child he appreciated Rockwells depiction of values in the Boy Scout calendar. Rockwell was hired to be the calendar’s art direcor at age 18 and Spielberg created his first film for a merit badge. However, don’t be fooled by all of this talk of boy scouts, Spielberg acknowledges that Rockwell shows an America that ‘probably never was except for in small pockets’ but that Rockwell’s images goad us to reach for that ideal. (Ironically, Spielberg’s friend George Lucas says that his small town childhood was reflected in those Rockwell Boy scout calendar illustrations).
Rockwell was not so much depicting America, as creating a vision of what it could be. Still, that didn’t stop him from turning a critical eye to America’s issues. Although many of his images are humorous, there is a serious side as Rockwell comments on society. In “The Jury Room” he shows a woman holding firm while being pressured by the 11 male members of the jury. In 1959, three states didn’t permit women to be jurors and other states limited women’s participation in juries. The painting also connects to the classic film Twelve Angry Men, which came out two years earlier.
Though he has reputation for painting smiling, happy middle-class families and cute kids, Rockwell did not ignore totally ignore class differences or struggle. His paintings show deliverymen, window washers, and teachers as well. In “Charwomen in the Theater,” hardworking steal a moment to pore over a playbill and “The Convention” shows a beleaguered coat-check girl, who was probably an aspiring actress.
Much has been made of “The Problem We All Live With,” 1964 painting which shows a black girl being accompanied to school by U.S. Marshals with a a racial epithet scrawled on the wall behind them.
Fewer people have probably seen “Proud Possessor,” which is part of the exhibit. This drawing illustrates a story about a boy whose mother says he must give away one of his puppies. Kiah, who is white, is reluctant to give up his puppy, but he must, so he enters into an agreement with Pomp, a shabbily dressed black boy, who exacts payment to be the puppy’s caretaker. The tension in the illustration is palpable. Pomp is not at odds with Kiah, so much as he knows this is his chance to name his price, a rare opportunity for someone in his position.
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 artworks and a podcast with commentary from the Lucas, Spielberg and the curator on the museum’s website.