Monday, March 30, 2015

American Chronicles: Norman Rockwell at the Tampa Museum of Art

From March 7-May 31 the Tampa Museum of Art is exhibiting one of the most popular American artists of the 20th century, Norman Rockwell. For nearly seven decades in an era of great change, Rockwell chronicled our changing society in the small details and nuanced scenes of ordinary people in everyday life, providing personalized interpretation – albeit often an idealized one – of American identity. Much like Rolling Stone has provided a mirror for our era by means of the music of our times, Rockwell contributions have provided a visual legacy,

Though most famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers, 321 in all over the course of a lifetime, he produced more than 4000 paintings and drawings, each of them telling a totally different story. In fact, that is the most striking thing about this exhibition. Each fully-engaging illustration is a complete story, with remarkable details. I try to imagine a writer trying to do the same and suspect very few achieve a hundred let alone thousands. (Joyce Carol Oates may be the exception.)

From his Boy's Life days
This show includes some of Rockwell's earliest paintings, used to illustrate Boys Life magazine, for which he was art director by age 19. His big break came in 1916 when one of his paintings was use on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, for which he painted covers over the next 47 years. His distinctive paintings were also featured in Look, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, Boy’s Life, Literary Digest and Life.

What's striking to me when I see this exhibition is that Norman Rockwell was an exceptional artist and one of the most well-known artists of the century. Only a handful of artists achieve the kind of name recognition that Picasso and Dali achieved. Rockwell is of the same ilk, except for some reason he's never been given respect by art critics who dismissed him as "just an illustrator."

The Critic
In fact, one of his paintings pokes fun of these critics by depicting a critic stooped forward with a magnifying glass examining a painting while two faces in the painting are examining the critic. It's a comical commentary, but Rockwell did feel stung by the manner in which he was not taken serious by the critics.

Many of the paintings in American Chronicles are as familiar as the presidents featured on our paper money, but there were plenty of surprises as well, including two paintings of pioneer Daniel Boone, and the detailed records of his efforts to portray the murder of three young men in Mississippi in a manner more akin to Goya than his usual characterizations.

Included in the exhibit are the Buy War Bonds posters inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s address to Congress utilizing Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings which were reproduced in four consecutive issues of The Saturday Evening Post with essays by contemporary writers. These are among his most familiar works, depicting Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. These paintings toured the United States in an exhibition that was jointly sponsored by the Post and the U.S. Treasury Department, raising more than $130 million for the war effort.

When one views this life overview it strikes me as impossible to dismiss Rockwell by saying he's not a serious artist any more thank one can dismiss Mark Twain as a literary figure. "He was just a humorist," doesn't cut it. Both Twain and Rockwell were keen observers of human nature, excelled at capturing their observations and transmitting them by images in either words or pictured to the wider public. In the event you agree with me, you may enjoy Cat Weaver's sarcastic How to Talk About Norman Rockwell.

Meantime, if you happen to be in Tampa, over the next two months, be sure to check out this very special show. And while you're there, note how beautifully renovated the area is, with parks, a children's museum and more in this sector of the city. This art district has brought people back downtown again.

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