Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Q&A with SAAM director Elizabeth Broun on Rockwell

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TheTexan.jpgIn July the Smithsonian American Art Museum will launch a show called “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.” As a continuation of MAN’s coverage of so-called fluff shows — museum exhibitions of single, or in this case two, private collections — I talked with SAAM director Elizabeth Broun. In a related story and in what would be a first for a Smithsonian art museum, SAAM is considering selling tickets for early-entry to this exhibition. [Image: Norman Rockwell, The Texan, 1930.]

MAN: Could you introduce the exhibition, tell us what it’s about and explain why the museum is doing it.

Elizabeth Broun: You’re well-aware that Norman Rockwell for the most part was ignored by serious museums and art historians until recently. He’s still kind of unexplored territory and we think he’s still is not taken fully as seriously because that ‘illustrator’ label is attached to him. So when this idea came to us – I confess we did not invent this concept – the idea that there was a significant connection between Rockwell and Hollywood and Rockwell and the movies, it came as a surprise to us.

It takes one to know one and it really is the two collectors who have come up with the idea that Rockwell made art as if he were directing movies. Virginia Mecklenburg is our senior curator… she spent a long time researching it. We sent her manuscript out for peer review and the comments we got back were like, “I believe this book constitutes a lasting contribution to the field founded on absolutely first-rate research and thought. Its focus is clearly stated and argued.”

We think there is new scholarly work here, new discoveries and it really centers on three different relationships between Rockwell and the movies. The first is biographical. People haven’t integrated the idea that in  1930 he married Mary Barstow, who was a Hollywood girl, an L.A. person. She died in 1959. For 25 years — all the time they were raising their kids — they would trek west on holidays and vacations and would go visit the grandparents in Hollywood. He got to know the movie people, got acquainted with them, designed studio posters… In 1966 he was given a non-speaking role in the re-make of “Stagecoach.”

At first you hear ‘Rockwell and Hollywood’ and it sounds like a collision of two alien cultures, but he was there a lot and knew people. In his biography there is a clear basis for this idea that he was looking and thinking about movies.

The second idea is the process that he used, the elaborate staging of his pictures. He labored over what costumes [characters] wore. He did lots and lots of drawings and he used individual little props. The idea that Spielberg and Lucas came up with is that like them, he was a story-teller — but he told his narrative in a single frame. They think they recognize a kind of kindred spirit, in a way… It is an interesting way of looking at what he’s doing. There is something kind of insightful about that. Rockwell once said, ‘If I hadn’t become a painter, I would have liked to have been a movie director.’ That tells you it’s in his brain too.

Third, widening the scope and looking at what Rockwell was doing at different times in his career and matching it up with what the movies were then: During the ’30s and the  war years, he was doing the unlikely American hero, the ‘patriotic Joe, all for the cause.’ It’s like Frank Capra movies. You start looking at individual characters. Mickey Rooney was sort of a Rockwell kid. There’s a kind of correlation that’s loose. I don’t think that [curator] Virginia Mecklenburg would say we’re making a one-to-one, who-influenced-who-in-what-year argument, but [both Rockwell and film are] responding to a mass appeal, and to the popular themes related to their time.

RockwellSpiritofAmerica.jpgLook at the war years… Rockwell wants to do The Four Freedoms to serve the cause and Roosevelt has given his speech and the challenge is to persuade Americans, who are isolationist by nature, that it’s worth it to commit their sons to go abroad and fight a war. Rockwell kind of brings that story home by locating those four freedoms in his little American township environs. He personalizes the war for Americans by bringing it home. It’s very much like what Capra does in his films, called “Why We Fight.”

Even later, in the ’50s [1959], Rockwell does a picture called The Jury, a kind of cute picture of the only woman on a jury. All the men are smoking cigarettes and [they seem to be] pressuring her and she’s the one holdout. It turns out it was done around same time as “Twelve Angry Men.” In 1957, I think… women were restricted from sitting on juries in 18 states. Rockwell’s picking up on little things that are topical enough to show up in the movies too. There is a kind of ongoing relationship, maybe less direct, specific influence one-to-the-other, but because the movies and Rockwell are both going for mass audiences and appealing to what people are concerned about in the moment, they’re working the same field of interest. For all those reasons we think this show has an important angle on Rockwell that no one has paid attention to. It doesn’t answer the question, ‘Is he a great artist or not?’, but it makes him a more interesting artist.

MAN: Is all the work from those two private collections, or have you added work from your collection or elsewhere?

EB: It is entirely drawn from those two collections and we think that’s related. These two movie people figured that out long before any of the art historians. They’ve been collecting Rockwell for a long time and they respond on all those levels, but also to the themes. Steven Spielberg was an Eagle Scout and he collected a painting by Rockwell of an Eagle Scout. [Image above: Norman Rockwell, Spirit of America, 1929.]There are all these personal connections they find. They too are patriotic and are concerned with war themes. They’re concerned about social issues. Lucas, in part, is doing fantasy entertainment for kids. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” there’s the unlikely hero, the figure who is dropped into circumstances and emerges as a hero. So we think it’s not just coincidental, nor are we just reaching out to grab celebrity. We think it is an important part of the project. This was not recognized first out of the art academy, it was recognized by people who are in the industry who say, ‘Wow, he’s one of us.’

It reminds me of David Hockney’s  book “Secret Knowledge.” It took a painter to figure out that artists since Caravaggio have been using lenses and mirrors [as drawing aides].

Part two is here.

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