Friday, February 22, 2008

Norman Rockwell - How "Real" is Realism?

Rockwell's America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell is a traveling interactive exhibit of Norman Rockwell's images that explores his impact as an artist who in the process of creating images that imagined and conveyed events and moments in his experience of American life, contributed to the American vision. Along with other work he painted 322 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers during the decades from 1920's through the 1960's.

Last week I toured the Rockwell's America exhibit at Discovery Place (a science museum) in Charlotte, North Carolina with my family. After sitting in a darkened room and watching the introductory video for 6 minutes, the attendant parted the curtains on one side of the room and invited all of us in the room to proceed through the exhibit.

As a child I began studying art in the early 1970's. Adult artists I was around were still arguing about the merits of "modern" artists like Picasso. Though poles apart, many realistic/figurative artists and modern artists agreed on one thing: Norman Rockwell was "just an illustrator".

Seeing his images (there aren't any important originals in this exhibit) from the vantage point of 2008, those discussions seem silly. Norman Rockwell did more than paint. With his paintings he reflected and guided American culture. His images have been seen by more humans than ANY other artist in history!!

My first feeling seeing the dioramas of Norman Rockwell's world was one of sweet familiarity and nostalgia. My maternal grandparents loved Norman Rockwell's art and the Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell images pervaded their life. Unconsciously I melded Norman Rockwell's sweet images of small town America into my understanding of my Grandparent's lives. My grandfather, James Ira Wisner, was born in Missouri on a farm outside of Center, Missouri. His sister lived in Hannibal, MO and his other sisters remained in the Midwest their entire lives. For a few years he moved his wife and 5 California-born daughters back to Center, Missouri to be near his family. My grandmother, Alice would often shake her head when recalling the memory of the move, glad to be sitting in her Escondido, California home, savoring a sun-drenched retirement. As Catholics, the family had been the object of anti-Catholic prejudice and weren't a good fit in the tiny country town of less than 500 people. They lasted a few years, then returned to Southern California.

Despite the negative experience the family had, in retirement my grandparents set out on a road trip to Center, Missouri every few years. Like a bitter pain pill coated with a resilient, warm amber layer of gelatin, the images Norman Rockwell painted soothed my grandparents, seeming to have covered any bad memories of small town life with a patina of bucolic charm.

To most non-artists, Norman Rockwell is perceived to be a Realist. He isn't. And he is. Though several late images convey a loving and wise view of race relations, the majority of images are of white people. Looking at decades of magazine covers I began to hunt for brown faces. Rockwell painted during the years when American Indians were still not allowed to vote, their children were being forcibly educated in English-only boarding schools and more. Anti-Greaser laws in the American Southwest were in force against American Hispanics. American Africans were being lynched and denied voting rights in the American South. Jews were undergoing the worst world-wide persecution of a religious group in history. I looked in vain for images of American Indians, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans. Then I realized, brown faces weren't part of the Anglo American mythological mindset.

Norman Rockwell wasn't a naive country rube with a talent for art. He was born in New York and educated at some of the best art schools of the day. A bright talent from the beginning, he was selling his illustrations to national magazines before he was 18 years old. Of course living in New York City, a city of ethnicity would have inescapably brought Rockwell in contact with people that weren't Anglo, along with those Anglos that were very ethnic. You'd never know it looking at the first 3 decades of his work. The realism Norman Rockwell was painting was what I see as a mythological American Anglo concept. Again -- yes, he did paint images with other ethnicities, but this was towards the end of his career and does not include the majority of his work.

Until this exhibit, I hadn't ever really looked at a body of Norman Rockwell's work. I'd seen paintings, prints and illustrations for most of my life, but that isn't the same as paying attention to and understanding the effect those images were having on me.

Walking through the exhibit I was struck with a unexpected mix of feelings. I felt a nostalgia for a life that didn't really exist along with anger that I had "just" noticed that I, with my brown skin and Hispanic heritage from my father was left out of the story. In fact so were all of my paternal relatives & ancestors. I finally consciously recognized that the exclusion of the color brown from the majority of Norman Rockwell's images had contributed to how I saw myself. I could enter Norman Rockwell's vision of provincial life mentally from the portal of my maternal heritage, but the reality of my obvious ethnicity kept me from thinking of myself as a participant in that life.

The reality of imagery is that it both documents and creates. Because Norman Rockwell's images were so commercially successful that he contributed to defining America's perception of itself, he is a powerful and important artist to study. The realism Norman Rockwell painted wasn’t realism at all. It was an American Anglo myth he imagined & shared. I realized that the exclusion of the color brown from the majority of Norman Rockwell's images contributed to how Americans see themselves, a myth that in some form persists. Re-imagining that myth is the work of contemporary society.

I'm grateful for the experience of being able to view Rockwell's America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell. I learned more than I expected. And that's a good thing.

Photo: The exhibit encouraged viewers to sit at an easel and paint a self-portrait like Rockwell would often do. The mirrors were set at the perfect height for children, so I sketched a portrait of my husband, Randall Barna. All in all -- an inspiring exhibit.

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