Earlier that morning I had been reading about Native Americans who, some 300 years ago around another fire in eastern North Carolina, devised excruciating methods of torturing their enemies. I cringed at human cruelty. Little has changed, from there to Abu Ghraib… life as it is. Fourteen hours later, seated by my fire, fingers stuck together with marshmallow goo, I was experiencing life as I wish it were.
A month earlier, I had taken my sister, Lee, and her husband, Dan, to see the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the North Carolina Art Museum. All of his Saturday Evening Post covers (actually real covers with mailing labels) were on display. There were also some paintings from which the covers were made, surprisingly large, as if he were painting for real so to speak, which clearly he was, rather than just providing an illustration for a magazine cover.
I kept looking at the cherubic faces, the comic situations, the zest of childhood, the twinkling eye of the elders, and eventually it began to hurt, everyone looked so happy. “Don’t they get it?” I thought. At the same time, there was a reverence, a self-respect, an innocent yet sensitive regard for others, and a bravery and generosity that seems utterly missing in our cultural and artistic motifs today. In that light, what’s so wrong with painting life as we wish it were.
The exhibit is roughly U-shaped. You enter at one leg of the U and exit at the other. So, the design of the exhibit purposely leads you through a chronological progression of Rockwell’s art to a surprise ending. And so, we eventually see that Rockwell discovered or knew all along that everyone did not live in Mayberry.
Somewhere in the ’60s he left the Saturday Evening Post for Look magazine, and began painting the stories of the Civil Rights era. The impact and the change in the U-shaped scenario has a stunning impact on the viewer. Did Rockwell wake up in the ’60s, as many of us did, or had he long been fuming underneath thinking, I’ve got to paint life as it is.
By the time we reached the final room of the exhibit, there was but one very large painting featured on a single wall, the murder in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, of the three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. I had never seen the painting or knew of it, and I imagine most visitors coming to a Norman Rockwell exhibit had no knowledge of it either.
In this, his second career, Rockwell could still yearn for life as he wished it were, but this time through new lenses, as we see in his tableau, Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You.
The debate over Rockwell as an artist is really pointless. What’s the line between “it is” and “it isn’t?” Could one aspect of art be to depict timeless truth? Don’t people sooner or later get along with each other at a soda fountain? What’s not timeless and true about that? Those are some of my most cherished memories. Maybe, he just knew that the American public needed cheering up, and cheering up folks paid well. Was he or could he have been the 20th Century Winslow Homer? Catching a fish is real work, right? So was riveting for Rosie, though she seems rather nonchalant about her tough job.
How long can you sit and stare in wonder at a Norman Rockwell, compared to an Edward Hopper? For me, longer at the Hopper, but for the life of me I’m not sure what Hopper’s got to say. With Rockwell, I am sure and it is comforting. It doesn’t have to be hard to get, as museum guides might lead us to believe. Hopper’s people are as isolated as Rockwell’s people are connected… as it is or as we wish it were. Certainly, seeing both sides gives us something to work with.
Bill Phillips’ blog: North Carolina People and Places