Friday, October 15, 2010

American Fantasy: Rockwell and the Folk Artists at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Boy, this one I just keep coming back to! Part of it's the late hours (the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, alone among its peers, keeps its door open until 7:00) part of it's the vastness of the collections, and part of it is that fascinating paradoxicality that is American art. I've covered the SAAM's contemporary art here, and the American history collections here. This time I blew in through the doors and barrelled straight to the Norman Rockwell exhibit. The pictures (it's a Flash presentation and I can't link to the individual images, but do scroll through the whole thing) were from the personal collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The spotlight illuminating the exhibit's title proclaimed both its theme and its nature.  This exhibit is about telling stories like they do in movies.  This exhibit is not subtle.

Neither is Rockwell. I came pre-loaded with the bloatware of other people's judgements and my own reactionary desires when looking at his work - he's practically a byword for saccharine idealization of Middle America, and I wanted to see what was actually awesome about him. I was surprised, and a little discomfited, to find truth in the stereotype.  He's an able, workmanlike illustrator (and according to the photos at the beginning of the exhibition, really did seem to be constantly chawing on a pipe) but his images, while they may quirk a smile, are hardly challenging. They do a very solid job of telling stories, but they leave no room for the viewer to participate in the creation of that story. Back to Civvies, for instance, is a young soldier come home to discover he has outgrown his work suit. Carefully chosen details - pinups by the mirror, fishing rod by the wall, decoration on the folded uniform - give the illusion of depth and discovery. But really, it's the same simple story all the way down. What you see, folks, is what you get - no matter how long you keep looking.

In fact, the very completeness of the stories stops the images just short of being emotionally manipulative. Rockwell had the makings of a propagandist.  It's no wonder that so much of his work in this exhibition (The Stuff of Which Memories Are Made, Merry Christmas Grandma, And Daniel Boone Comes to Life) is advertisement. Some of Rockwell's propaganda is absolutely top-of-the-genre (The Four Freedoms), some is cringingly bad (Charles Lindbergh) and some just plain middle-of-the-road (A Time For Greatness - Shepard Fairey he ain't.)

But, since this is a personal collection, I don't have to rely on my own reactions to make sense of it. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg talk about why they chose the images in a 12-minute looping video. Nervous at first when Lucas started spouting things like "The audience wants to be informed in a way that's not only entertaining but informative," I was soon mollified by the actual insights the two directors provided not only into Rockwell's work, but into their own hearts as viewers.  Spielberg described seeing Boy on a High Dive and instantly relating to the it.  "I thought 'That's going in my office, so I can look at it every day.'" That's the kind of art collector I respect: one who sees an image and has to have it - not for power or prestige, but simply to be able to continue looking at it.

I learned a few things about Rockwell's techniques as a painter.  Apparently he cast his paintings, taking multiple photographs of his models and showing them exactly where to stand and what expressions to wear. Lucas also pointed out the prevalence of over-the-shoulder views in Rockwell's paintings. There he goes creating a point-of-view character.  There's definitely something Spielbergian in Rockwell's use of child protagonists.  Is it something about the purity of childhood emotional experience? I wonder if I would have the same criticisms of Rockwell if he were explicitly a children's book illustrator?

The Mermaid
Rockwell's proficiency and prolific output remind me of another purveyor of the popular: Stephen King. King has the same deftness of hand when it comes to evoking strongly drawn American types, the same relentless focus on narrative.  And one surprising image in Rockwell's collection illustrates a similarity that should have been.  Rockwell would have made a top-notch science fiction illustrator.  He infuses his people with plain and vivid character.  Juxtapose that with surreal or sinister situations, and you have some real imaginative potential. As it was, the fantasy world he constructed was America.

Exiting the exhibit I ran into a hall of bronzes (why does that always seem to happen?!) and then looped back around through the American Experience and Folk Art sections on the ground floor.

I'm basically going to ignore the American Experience section.  I usually walk right past landscapes, and when I was drawn closer by the electric blue of The Chief's Canoe it refused to reward my interest. There was also a giant stone donut, perhaps a sly tribute to the archetype of American masculinity? But I was in a hurry to get to the Folk Art room, where mute inglorious Miltons got their chance to mouth off.

Thornton Dial, Sr.Top of the Line (Steel)
I really dig this collection.  Sure, some of it looks like it was produced at Crafts Hour at summer camp, but for the most part it's refreshingly free of the convoluted introspection of capital-A art. I'm inclined to suspect that a lot of the things that art still has to say concern materials, and works like Root Monster and Top of the Line (Steel) are speaking loud and clear. That's not to say that folk art is somehow purer or more admirable than the art of the establishment and its loyal opposition. If anything, it's messier. And in its messiness, it gets at part of what it is to be American.

Religious motifs, particularly apocalyptic ones, are everywhere.*  Almon has Christ chaining Mr. and Mrs. Devil. Finster's crossing of the Jordan is an overwhelming tide of text. Roberg paints a technicolor Babylon. Not coincidentally, many of these artists are also street preachers, that glorious meld of huckster and prophet. If you have this in your head, let alone in your house, you're crazy. But we do. And we are. And we're running with it. Christine McHorse makes the scintillatingly paradoxical declaration "I can make my own taboos and traditions." America gonif!

I haven't even visited the National Portrait Gallery yet, so you can be sure I'll be back with yet another "American Noun" titled blog post.

For another perspective, check out iowasthinking's review of the Rockwell exhibit.

*I find the apocalypse, as a motif, endlessly fascinating.  I'll elucidate in another post one of these days.

1 comment:

  1. Rockwell is a much underrated artist; as the saying goes, no one likes him except most people. I do find intriguing your comment that he would have made a top-notch science fiction illustrator; what would he have done with Flash Gordon, Adam Strange, and James T. Kirk?

    Incidentally, Rockwell in his later years made some well-received forays into social commentary, particularly regarding civil rights issues. You can find some of that work at