Saturday Art: Norman Rockwell. Yes, Norman Rockwell.
Recently, while in an antique store in northern Wisconsin, I broke down and sprung for a used copy of the big-ass hardcover Time-Life version of Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator. And I don’t feel a bit guilty.
Yeah, old Norm made his living on hackwork and treacle — but if we were to rid the world’s art galleries of hackwork and treacle, a lot of famous art by a lot of famous artists would suddenly disappear. As Robert Hughes pointed out in his 1982 commentary on an ironic Russian Soviet-era painting by Komar and Meramid: "Stalin and the Muses—showing Clio, muse of history, presenting a volume for revision to the mustachioed god in his transcendent white military greatcoat—is "objectively" a hilarious spoof, done in clumsily tight parody of the 17th century grand manner. But then, if these sleek pictorial tropes are so absurd when lavished on Stalin, why should they be any less so when used on Louis XIV, Peter the Great or any other enlightened despot? Seldom has a tyrant been so absolute or cruel that he could not find some major artist, a Rubens or a Titian, a Velasquez or a Bernini, to fawn on him for a suitable fee."
Hackwork, in the form of flattering portraits of the powerful or theologically orthodox depictions of sacred texts, was how artists made their livings for millenia and in many cases do today. Only with the rise of merchant and middle classes with disposable incomes, and the coincident lowering in price of printed manuscripts that led to the rise of printed media, did artists have a chance to branch out into different forms of art hackery, such as the creation of appealing magazine covers that was Rockwell’s specialty. Furthermore, even Rockwell’s hackwork had flashes of genius, and when he let himself go on a theme that touched him, such as with his Four Freedoms series or his paintings on racism done for Look magazine, or his work with Pierre Mion on the paintings depicting the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, I defy anyone to name another artist that could surpass him. . . .
For me, one of Rockwell’s strongest points was his love of the non-pretty, in both men and women. Look at the man who has risen to speak in the Freedom of Speech painting of the Four Freedoms series; he is not handsome, he is not young, rich, or well dressed, but his earnestness and an awkward dignity render him monumental. Rockwell loves him, and you can see this by how carefully and faithfully everything about this figure is rendered. Or compare, for instance, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter to the more famous "We Can Do It!" Rosie by J. Howard Miller. Miller’s Rosie, based on Michigan factory worker Geraldine Doyle, has the pretty features most artists would fall back on for a generic portrayal of womanhood; whereas Rockwell’s Rosie, for whom the then-seventeen-year-old Shirley Karp was the model, was a brawny lass with a pug nose whose figure would nowadays be considered obese. Miller gives his Rosie a stern expression and overtly aggressive pose, whereas Rockwell’s Rosie exudes power and self-confidence sufficient to render such displays unnecessary; she holds her heavy and unwieldy rivet gun on her lap with nonchalant ease, just as she nonchalantly eats her sandwich and nonchalantly has her feet, in worn yet still-sturdy shoes, parked contemptuously atop a copy of Mein Kampf.
Norman Rockwell. In these times where illustrative art is demanded in split-second time frames and the camera is the go-to device for people wishing realistic visuals, we will never see his like again, and that makes me somewhat sad.
[Graphic: The Problem We All Live with by Norman Rockwell (Low res. version used here via Wikipedia for commentary and analysis under Fair Use.)]