Thursday, March 3, 2011

American Chronicles

Norman Rockwell at Tacoma Art Museum

The Weekly Volcano, March 2, 2011

"The Problem We All Live With": Oil on canvas by Norman Rockwell, 1963 - an Illustration for Look, Jan. 14, 1964. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum


Tacoma Art Museum is the only Northwest stop for American Chronicles, an exhibition of the works of American icon Norman Rockwell.

For almost as long as I have been alive, Rockwell has been idolized by most of the American public while being ridiculed by most art critics. I can easily see why on both counts. When I was a kid I wanted to be Norman Rockwell. I even signed up for the Famous Artists correspondence school because he was one of the artist-teachers. By the time I was an art major in college I had come to think of him as a joke. After that I dismissed him completely as not worth bothering with. But I have to admit that I was surprised by the beauty and power of a few of the paintings in this show - only a few, but those few knocked me out.

If Rockwell had spent his career making serious paintings instead of working at being America's most popular illustrator he could have been great.

A few of the paintings in this show are absolutely stunning. In many of his paintings the paint is thickly layered using the technique of over-glazing to create rich surfaces with an inner glow. The colors in "Christmas Eve in Bethlehem," which depicts tourists lining up to see the supposed birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, are ablaze due to the contrasts of the brilliant yellow surfaces of buildings against a deep cerulean blue night sky with foreground figures dramatically backlit.

"Murder in Mississippi," illustrating the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., is a dull monotone that looks like a weathered newspaper clipping. It is accompanied in this exhibition by a number of preliminary studies illustrating Rockwell's working technique.

The texture on the stone wall that serves as background to the little girl in "The Problem We All Live With" is amazingly realistic. You feel like you can reach out and feel the stone. This image depicts a little black girl being guarded by U.S. Marshalls as she enters a previously segregated school.

These paintings show Rockwell's amazing talent - his dramatic flare, the translucent light in his paintings and the amazing attention to detail, little of which is apparent in reproduction. These paintings and a few others are comparable to the very best of Renaissance paintings. Everything else in this show confirms my contention that he was just an illustrator who capitalized on flash and easy sentiment.

Rockwell didn't consider himself a painter. He was an illustrator. In purely visual terms, illustration falls short of art because the visual elements - line quality, color, composition, harmony, etc. - are sacrificed on the alter of storytelling; this is painfully evident in nearly every one of the 323 original Saturday Evening Post magazine covers in this show. Some of them are cute, some touch the heart, but most are overly simplistic glorifications of small town America, family values, religion and patriotism. Only those few paintings about the civil rights struggles in the South acknowledge that there might be a dark undertone to some of those vaunted American values.

I may not like his sentimentality and corny humor, but this exhibition has shown me that the man could really paint.

Through May 30, Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
admission $8–$9, children free, Third Thursdays free
Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

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