Saturday, November 14, 2009

Art review: Rockwell's art a gift in difficult times

Girl at Mirror (1954), by Norman Rockwell.

By Gretel Sarmiento

Little girls with ribbons. Smiles hidden behind melting ice cream. Summer trips. Family quality time.

Nobody remembers an America like this, devoid of sadness, depression and poverty. Whose America is this? Without hesitation, some would say Norman Rockwell's. They wouldn't have been wrong, but they would have missed a large part of what this singular American illustrator and painter was all about.

"I have always wanted everybody to like my work," the New York-born artist wrote in his autobiography. "So I have painted pictures that didn't disturb anybody, that I knew everyone would understand and like."

When an artist openly admits to being sensitive to the public's opinion, this gives the public a precious opportunity to influence that work. More so, if it emerges from a young high school dropout as insecure and doubtful of his own artistic talents as Rockwell often was. The public stands no chance with artists who create independently of any exterior adulation.

Not Rockwell. He was listening. His work reflects not only the America he wanted to see but that people wanted to see. The engaging, masterful and beautiful product of his 65-year career is now on exhibit through Feb. 7 as American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale-Nova Southeastern University. The show, which opened today, is the first collaboration between the Museum of Art and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

"This is our gift to the nation," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and chief executive officer of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Indeed. Here we don't have to overanalyze or sit on a bench for 30 minutes. It's pretty and pretty straightforward.

Triple Self-Portrait (1960), by Norman Rockwell.

If at any point while walking the first floor, where 30 of his original paintings, sketches and all 323 Saturday Evening Post covers are displayed, we find ourselves craving the bad and the ugly, we would have to blame our predecessors. Rockwell was not a discriminator of the ugly. We were. To criticize him for being selective, overly optimistic and too much of an idealist is to criticize ourselves for being the same.

We, after all, encouraged his idyllic art, the same way we encouraged Andy Warhol to stay commercial by buying his colorful prints and soup cans. Had there been a strong demand and interest in seeing raw reality depicted on a canvas, perhaps the Rockwell we know today would have been completely different. Maybe his most serious work would have emerged earlier.

While considering a visit to the exhibit, ask yourself: Am I ready for Rockwell? Don't dismiss the question so quickly. His work is nominally simple and beautiful, but the emotion and memories it evokes are heavy and complicated. Innocence, Childhood, Beauty, Youth, Coming of Age, Love, Family: all of them universal themes that can hardly resist a tear in normal days. The gloomy present times are bound to make us even more sensitive to them.

But "it's not just about nostalgia," said Irvin Lippman, Museum of Art executive director. And that is precisely what the exhibition seems to want to prove once and for all. From the supplementary pamphlets to the accompanying advertising, it is clear museum organizers see this is a chance to finally set the record straight.

Freedom From Want (1943), by Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell (1894-1978) was not just about good moments and happy holidays. To make that point, organizers have made this a non-chronological exhibition. Not until the radical '60s did Rockwell's work gain a certain seriousness, treating real issues -- war, JFK, space exploration. But we are not made to walk to the end of the exhibition to find the evidence.

In fact, in the very first room we see represented the themes of war, democracy and patriotism in the famous Four Freedoms poster series: Freedom of Speech, Freedom From Fear, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom From Want, which he painted in 1943 and were used to sell World War II bonds. It took him six months to finish the job, and it shows. One of the things to look for is his use of white on white in Freedom From Want, from the table linens to the glasses to the china.

Rockwell chose to depict familiar settings, some intimate, all very relatable. In doing so the artist included everybody, offended no one. Regardless of our political stance or opinion on war, we cannot ignore or fight against this work, walk away from it except in awe.

The Problem We All Live With (1964), by Norman Rockwell.

A striking reference to school segregation is found in the third installation room, The Problem We All Live With, depicting a brave little black girl being escorted to school by U.S. marshals. Their heads are cut off, suggesting their identity is not important. A splashed red tomato rests on the sidewalk, and a terrible racial epithet is scrawled on the wall behind her. The event that inspired the 1964 piece took place four years earlier, when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and became the first African-American child to attend that elementary school.

Notice her right feet moving forward, her hand closed in a fist, her head held up high. She is not stopping. If one were fighting for a change, a cause we believe is important and necessary, this would be a good place to come for inspiration. Right in front of this painting we are reminded that perseverance and courage are key, for just about anything.

Going and Coming (1947), by Norman Rockwell.

Displayed right next to it is a warm depiction of a family's summer outing titled Going and Coming, which almost yells "fun" -- at least in the Going part. Then there are the sketches, handwritten notes and photographs giving the viewer a glimpse of the artist's meticulous preparation and creative process, which ironically goes unnoticed in the final products. On display, too, are some of Rockwell's advertising art for Colgate, Kellogg Cereal and Raybestos, a brake service company.

Delicate, vivid images such as Freckles and If Your Wisdom Teeth Could Talk... are so delightful to look at that their function appears grotesque in comparison. It's hard to believe that an ad could be this attractive and contain this level of artistry. Then there is Merrie Christmas, a 1929 Saturday Evening Post cover standing by itself on a bluish wall and proving the impact illustrations from Charles Dickens books had on the artist.

Murder in Mississippi (Southern Justice) (1965), by Norman Rockwell.

All of these are out to show Rockwell not so much as capable of capturing every wrinkle and smile down to perfection but as a master of drama, narration, composition and storytelling. You have only to look at his 1960 Triple Self-Portrait to know. New books, articles and future exhibitions are headed in the same direction.

But there is a danger in this mission to overturn the cultivated opinion that says Rockwell's style is superficial and sugarcoated. It may be saying that he did wrong by depicting lovely versions of reality, when maybe that's the aspect of his work that should be highlighted. If real versions of reality is what we want there are plenty of sources, but there are not many things that offer the sweet sanctuary Rockwell does.

This may very well be the best moment to show his "happy" work, or as good a moment as it gets. Fans will come to show their loyalty and admiration. But others will come simply out of a desire to escape, just as they would watch a movie they know is fiction but offers a truce, a momentary break from the sad reality.

That might be Rockwell's biggest merit and gift to us: a simple, refreshing art that doesn't require a sophisticated crowd, just a desperate one, wishing to remember the good times and hoping they come back one day.

Gretel Sarmiento is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

AMERICAN CHRONICLES: THE ART OF NORMAN ROCKWELL, at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale-Nova Southeastern University. Now through Feb. 7. Open daily except Mondays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and open until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Admission: $10, adults; $7 seniors, military members, children ages 6-17. Call 954-525-5500 or visit

Christmas Homecoming (1948), by Norman Rockwell.

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