Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.

—-New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl writing in ArtNews

I’m with Schjeldahl. From time immemorial, Norman Rockwell has been held up by the Smart Set to be the gold standard in  kitsch. That was, of course, the era when any sort of representational art was suspect, or when at the very least (as with pop art) it was considered necessary to put quotes around your subject in order to broadcast a comforting irony. I hope we are a mature enough society to permit a realignment at this stage in our history.

Rockwell was a genre painter, a mode of art that goes back for centuries, depicting little scenes of home life, enhanced with dramatic action and symbolism. Historically, painting has always had a narrative dimension. Being a “writer” and a “director” were as much a part of the painter’s job as being an accurate draftsman. Cameras, both still and moving, called that all into question at least in museums and galleries, though the publishing world still had use for someone of Rockwell’s abilities during the first 2/3 of the twentieth century. Then, shifting demographics and a general trend towards cynicism seemed to discredit even that remaining vestige. And so “Norman Rockwell”, much like “vaudeville”, became an epithet.

But much has happened to rehabilitate, even elevate, Rockwell, in recent decades. No one ever had much bad to say about Rockwell’s technique; the critical success of the photorealists and hyper-realists in recent decades has now provided commentators with a context for talking about Rockwell’s art, even if that’s kind of bass ackwards. Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera (now at the Brooklyn Museum through April 10), uses that technique as the pathway in, unexpectedly opening the door to talking about the other aspects of his work.

The current exhibition concentrates on the latter half of Rockwell’s career , the period when he began relying on photographs to assist him in his painting. While his  professional life dates from 1912, he wouldn’t start using photos until twenty years later, and kind of sporadically until the early 1940s, when he began to lean on them quite heavily. The technique was, and is, quite common. And, as the exhibition shows by juxtaposing the photos with the actual works, it was not a process of slavish reproduction. Rockwell used the photographs as guides and inspirations merely. He made countless changes along the way. A good example is The Runaway (1957, pictured above). Some of the guide photos, for example, have the state cop wearing his motorcycle jacket, making him resemble (in the Countess’s words) a storm trooper. In his shirtsleeves, he looks like a dumpy, friendly local sheriff — the boy’s savior, rather than “the law”. Similarly, the soda jerk in most of the photos is a daffy kid in a paper hat. In the final version, he looks more than vaguely sinister, almost like a bartender. We subtly get an idea of what the boy is being rescued from.

Furthermore, the photographic process itself was an extension of his art — a manifestation of the directorial art, if you will, as he not only chooses the locations and the props, but works with his models to get the right facial expressions, sometimes requiring hundreds of takes. (The wall text charmingly reports how, when he got the expression he wanted from the subject of Girl with Black Eye [1953], he literally fell down on the floor laughing.) Photos of Rockwell at work with his subjects reinforce this idea. We see him coaching the actors in the movements and faces to make (much as Chaplin would do with his actors). He looks like one of the characters in his paintings. And to my mind, the fact that his models, while paid, were all amateurs, somewhat gives the lie to the tired old sop that his visions somehow “aren’t real.”  Are they idyllic and idealized? Of course. Nothing new about that. Art has always done that, and frankly I prefer it to do that, at least sometimes. Hollywood does that, Michaelangelo does that, Shakespeare does that. Are they overwhelmingly white? This is undeniably true, though Rockwell redeems himself as soon as he is free from the strictures of the Saturday Evening Post and begins doing a Civil Rights series for Look. (Not surprising from a man who had earlier painted FDR’s “Four Freedoms”).

At any rate, the old saw is “write what you know”. For the most part, Rockwell painted his friends and neighbors. With hindsight, I think, we can relieve him of the charge of being the proto-Fascist illustrator of an “official America”, which is what he is generally accused of, didn’t ask for, and doesn’t deserve. He is an artist with a comical, warm, often touching view of humanity who depicted the rural and small town people around him as he found them (or, rather, as he staged them). He wasn’t a crusader or a reformer, but neither, in all probability, are you. But the thousands of intimate little moments  captured in Rockwell’s  illustrations do, I think, say something positive about the human experience, and have contributed mightily to the general store of human happiness. At least, of mine.

Judge for yourself! It’s on view at the Brooklyn Museum through April 10. Details here. (And for another response to the same exhibition, see the Countess’s here.)

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