Norman Rockwell art ends national tour

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 30, 2002 at 12:34 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The first comprehensive exhibition in 30 years of the work of Norman Rockwell, arguably America's most popular artist, is ending a 2-year national tour at the Guggenheim Museum, an institution that for years would have spurned his realistic, story-telling paintings but now is happy to wrap itself in the patriotic flag of a nation at war.

It is ironic that the Guggenheim -- which actually was called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting from its opening in 1939 to 1952, when it took the name of its founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim -- is displaying realistic art of any kind. For years it was consecrated to abstract art, obviously holding in contempt painter-illustrators such as Rockwell, known as "the Rembrandt of Punkin' Crick."

Perhaps Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens -- who has found space in recent years for shows of ancient art, contemporary fashion, and the most objective art of all, architecture -- felt he was living up the museum's 1937 charter "to provide for the promotion of art and for the mental and moral improvement of men and women by furthering their education, enlightenment and aesthetic taste" when he took on the Rockwell show.

Krens has offered no explanation except to say that Rockwell "captured an idealized conception of the American spirit, and the Guggenheim is extremely pleased to present this exhibit during such a difficult time in U.S. history."

"I hope visitors will find comfort and inspiration in Rockwell's nostalgic images of American life," he added, failing to note that the Guggenheim had signed up for the exhibition long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Actually, Krens always has an eye out for shows that will bring crowds flocking to the Guggenheim or one of its subsidiaries, and the Rockwell show is a always a crowd pleaser, wartime or not. The 7-city tour is on its way to attracting 2 million visitors before it closes at the Guggenheim March 3. That would be a big number even for a Rembrandt exhibition.

Rockwell is an admirable draftsman and technician, and his work is as homey as apple pie, as warm as mother's love, and absolutely harmless. At its best it can be ingenious and affecting and provide a vision of America and the world that reflects the best in human nature in its interaction with friends and neighbors and its reaction to the forces of evil, especially in a time of war.

The exhibition includes 70 oils and all 322 covers Rockwell created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine. It features materials tracing the artist's working methods such as rough sketches, photographs of models, and pencil studies. Not even a visit to the excellent Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., will provide a fuller overview of the artist's life (1894-1978) and his product, most of which was commissioned by magazines as covers and illustrations and commercial firms for advertisements.

For those who wish to learn more about Rockwell there is an illustrated catalogue of the show, "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," available in hardcover for $35, and a new biography, "Norman Rockwell, A Life," by Laura Claridge (Random House, 546 pages, $35).

Claridge's book is the first in-depth Rockwell biography and depicts him as a master story-teller whose imagery is memorable if over-controlled and too densely detailed, whose facial expressions tended toward caricature, and whose painting surfaces were flat and monotonous because they were intended to be seen in reproduction only.

The biographer stresses Rockwell's affinities to 17th century Dutch masters Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, and Pieter de Hooch, but a visit to the show at the Guggenheim will prove these claims to be mostly puffery. Actually Rockwell appears to have been more influenced by the 19th century American genre painters William Sidney Mount and Eastman Johnson, both fine painters of vernacular anecdote.

The exhibition is broken down into four thematic groupings of paintings. One of them, titled "Drawing on the Past" brings together scenes from English and American history and literature. Highlights include "Thanksgiving -- Ye Glutton," a humorous image of a hungry Pilgrim created for Life magazine, "Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence," and "The Most Beloved American Writer (Louisa May Alcott)."

Another group, "Celebrating the Commonplace," includes Saturday Evening Post covers about a boy's life -- "No Swimming," "Football Hero," and "Boy in a Dining Car," and a third, "Honoring the American Spirit" focuses on social issues such as racism ("The Problem We All Live With," painted in 1964, and "Murder in Mississippi," 1965), and themes promoting patriotism.

The patriotic pictures include "Rosie the Riveter," his 1943 concept of the woman war industry worker based on Michelangelo's Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel, and "Four Freedoms," the famous depictions of human rights expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. The originals of this series were toured nationally by the U.S. Treasury Department and raised $133 million in war bond sales.

A final section, "Inventing America," demonstrates Rockwell's attempt to provide Americans with a sense of comfort in a changing world. This last grouping depicts all the family rituals and community celebrations that colored and unified life in the United States in the century prior to World War II and contains some of Rockwell's most memorable, most sanitized, and most sentimental imagery.

But who can resist the charm of paintings like "After the Prom," "Family Home from Vacation," "Girl at Mirror," "Thanksgiving: Mother and Son (in Army uniform), "Peeling Potatoes," "Saying Grace," "The Doctor and the Doll," and "Barefoot Boy," created for a Coca Cola calendar?

But beyond the charm and the cuteness is the occasional deeper message such as the one implicit in his painting of a television antenna being installed on the roof of an old Victorian house against the image of a church steeple in the distance. Different messengers for different times Rockwell seems to be saying, and not without regret.

Robert Rosenblum, curator of 20th century art at the Guggenheim, admits that he is a Rockwell fan and the go-between who helped the show's organizers persuade his boss, Krenz, to accept the exhibit.

"There are so many hip young artist today who are plugged into Rockwell and are interested in his sort of flash photo sequence of American life," Rosenblum said. "I'd like to think I'm doing something cutting edge with this show, to turn this from some sort of right-wing, America First pageant into something that has real freshness for new art."

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