Quintissentially American

We had visitors this week from Australia. We knew them when we lived in Tokyo, forty years ago. They were traveling in the United States and came by to renew old acquaintance – and to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum. Did you know that the Saturday Evening Post circulated in Australia?

The NRM is in Stockbridge, forty miles away. We’ve driven through Stockbridge many times but never turned aside to see the Museum. If you are ever there and if you have a deep and abiding interest in Norman Rockwell, I can recommend it as a very nice place. There’s gallery after gallery of Rockwell paintings with excellent explanatory material. I had no idea.

I grew up with Rockwell covers on the Saturday Evening Post. They were part of the landscape, in every library and dentist’s office, and one didn’t think about them any more than one contemplated the elderly ladies in the house next door. They had, presumably, always been elderly and always lived next door. And the SEP had always had Rockwell covers that came out of a drawer somewhere. It never occurred to me that Rockwell spent weeks painting each of them, that he researched them, that he traveled to locations to get it right, that there was a time when he was growing up and struggling as a young artist and celebrating his first magazine contract.

But there the museum is and the paintings are: an encapsulated picture of life in mid-twentieth century America. There are the kids in the old swimming hole, and the teen-age girls primping for the prom, and grandma setting the Thanksgiving turkey in front of grandpa while eager faces look on.

And what a range of interest! There’s humor: the young mother with a child over her lap to be spanked, hairbrush in one hand and a book on raising children in the other. There’s social commentary: a very small black girl being escorted toward her school by four very bulky U.S. marshalls. It’s mid-century America frozen in amber. That’s what it was like.

And yet, somehow, it’s not what it was like. Rockwell was called “the painter with the photographer’s eye” and he often used photographs as the basis of his work. You couldn’t ask runners to pose in mid-stride but you could photograph them and be sure to get it right. The museum has the photographs and you can see how exactly right Norman Rockwell was. It was like that.

But somehow it was not like that. These are not photographs but paintings and, as such, they tweak the original and the result is a quintisentiallization of life that becomes part cartoon, part icon. The kids are too quintessentially kids, every small boy with a missing tooth. The adults are too iconically what they are: the telephone lineman like some Stalinesque hero of American labor, the parents tucking their child in at night somehow unreal in their normality, their Normanality.

I lived those years and it was like that, and yet it wasn’t at all like that. Rockwell’s photographer’s eye asks you to believe that there were people exactly like that – and there were not. There were similar people undoubtedly, but they were all different, each one more individual than a snowflake. The lineman confidently repairing the wires may have had a troubled marriage, the grandma putting the turkey on the table with a satisfied smile may have spilled some gravy just a minute ago in the kitchen. We see none of that. But life is not the series of iconic moments that Rockwell shows us. And even when he shows us the wrinkles in life, they become too amusing or too tragic or too stereotypical to be quite real.

The museum, somehow, was exactly what you would expect: a series of magazine covers, all surface and no depth. I wonder who will go there when those who lived those years are gone and have taken their nostalgia with them. Fifty years from now, will there be anyone there except sociologists, puzzling out the exact relationship between the artist and his age. I come at it as a working theologian, knowing that no two of us are alike and no quintisentiallization of life can show us the reality.

1 Comment

CarolineDecember 11th, 2009 at 5:16 pm

This has always been my feeling about Rockwell's art, too, but I could never quite put it into words. I can imagine that a full museum of it would be quite overwhelming!

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