Monday, May 11, 2009

America's Artist, and The Habah

This past weekend, Kelly and I took a long weekend and drove up to Massachusetts so I could finally fulfill a wish of mine: to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. We filled out the trip (going to the NRM was absolutely my only goal for the weekend. I could've turned around and driven back that day and been happy). It was a pretty amazing time all around- there's nothing quite like going on vacation with only a vague idea of what you want to do. Then when you're headed back home, thinking about how fantastic the trip was, the realization that most of those great moments came about through no planning, hits you and makes you see how wonderful spontaneity can be. Yeah, it was a good time.

I've been a fan of Norman Rockwell for a long time, but mostly without realizing it. I'd seen his paintings all over the place for years: old magazines, pictures in doctors' offices, books, and the like. I'd always admired them- there's no denying the... reality of the pictures. But my obsession with comic books and comic book art sort of kept Rockwell out of the spotlight for me throughout most of my 20's, or came in behind the ever-popular fraternal twins of Arts Nouveau and Deco. However, as I left the 20's and crashed into the 30's, my tastes and appreciations broadened considerably, and I began to pay closer attention to those artists I've always known, but never paid close attention to (Maxfield Parrish, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper also fall into this category). It certainly didn't hurt that Joey and Sean were branching out as well, or at least cluing me in to their own favorites.

I found a few Rockwell books in the used bookstores down around Frederick, and it was through those I began to really understand the power and depth of Rockwell's ability. Norman Rockwell's covers to The Saturday Evening Post told stories; simple stories, stories familiar to anyone, but with such skill and thought and life, it's impossible not to feel something when viewing them. The people populating his pictures nearly seem to live and breathe, and it's impossible not to know exactly what's happening to each person in the painting. You can practically read their thoughts written on their faces. Regardless of the setting of the painting, you can't help but feel understanding for the subjects. You will laugh, or sigh, or nod in agreement to the painting in front of you. You will feel something.

I thought I'd grasped his mastery of understanding both people and paint, but I really had no understanding of his ability until we went to the museum. The first one I saw, Strictly a Sharpshooter, left me a bit dazed. I'd only seen this in one book in the past, and compared to the real thing, the print was a pale, pale imitator. What in print looks nearly like a gray tonal painting, in real life was rich with shades and hints of color- just look at the woman. The red of her flower draws you to her- then you take a closer look, and you think she's more photo than painting. You can see how upset she is, while the ragged boxer is shouting at her, most likely in disbelief. Apparently she's drawn a crowd- look how she's gotten the attention of the other boxing fans?

Then, of course, there are The Four Freedoms. I've seen these before, probably a lot of folks have. Norman Rockwell painted them in response to FDR's 1941 speech outlining the Four Freedoms: Freedom to Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Four basic yet fundamental freedoms all people want and should strive towards. The four paintings were printed in the Post, and then again and again by the government. I'd seen them in so many books myself, I'd mostly forgotten what they meant.

Until I saw them with my own eyes.

They're situated in a gallery of their own in the center of the building, across from each other in each corner of the room, rather than on the walls. It was a good time to be there; there was no one in the gallery when I walked in, so I could have a minute to take it in on my own. Without realizing it, I was taking deeper and deeper breaths, nearly gasping. Goosebumps ran along my arms, and I actually felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I was nearly in tears, and I'd only just walked into the room. What was it about those paintings that had such an effect on me? A thought flashed through my mind as I stood there: This must be what they mean by 'religious experience', though it went beyond the idea of religion. I think it was just the idea of these simple ideas, - such amazing ideas pared down to their essence and so exactly and perfectly rendered into these paintings- I think that's what struck me so deeply. That's really the only way I can put it to words.

It was just amazing to see with my own eyes so many of his paintings, which I'd only seen previously in books and magazines. As I told Kelly later, I almost didn't want to bother looking at the prints they had for sale, since having seen the originals, they couldn't hope to compare. But I bought some anyway.

So that was my pilgrimage to the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Boston was wicked good, by the way.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, bro. Two observations:

Rockwell, the Wyeths and Hopper are typically considered "illustrators" moreso than artists by the cogniscenti. Utter rubbish, of course.

That's a VERY interesting link you found for the "Four Freedoms!" When you back up a level, it's a Bilderberg conspiracy theory site.

Steven Darrall said...

"conspiracy theory" -

that's what they WANT you to think!

As to the illustrator/artist debate, I can see the technical distinction, but anything else is just rubbish. At least an illustrator is honest about doing it for the money.