There’s never been a better time to return to the nostalgic innocence offered by Norman Rockwell illustrations and paintings. The Americana lifestyle Rockwell portrayed, mainly from the 1930s through 1960s, doesn’t exist in the year 2019.
“Norman Rockwell: American Freedom” opening this week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston showcases his best known works and concentrates on his depictions of the Four Freedoms from the FDR era.
A War Bonds Tour in 1943 was the first time Norman Rockwell’s art was displayed at the MFAH.
It was also in February and March of 1943 that Rockwell’s visual interpretation of then President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms – freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of worship, freedom of speech – appeared in weekly editions of The Saturday Evening Post. There’s an entire gallery devoted to these four works ranging from the actual paintings to costumes worn by Rockwell’s models.
Additionally, Four Freedoms Reimagined a modern day take on the iconic motifs are displayed in the final gallery. Video and interactive stopping areas highlight examination of entire issues of highlighted magazines or provide eyewitness testimony to the times.
How apropos it would be if the exhibit included the “Deadpool 2” movie poster, itself a parody of the theme of “want.” Rockwell actually designed a handful of movie posters for titles as disparate as “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Song of Bernadette,” “Along Came Jones,” and “The Razor’s Edge” all from the 1940s, as well as the Jerry Lewis comedy “Cinderfella” and the 1966 remake of “Stagecoach.” None of those are part of the current display.
Other contemporary artists that were either magazine illustrators or fine artists during the Depression and WWII are also represented. Think Dorothea Lange’s timeless image “Migrant Mother.”
An introductory gallery acts like a greatest hit of classic compositions. The eye immediately catches “Deadline,” created for the cover of the October 8, 1938 Saturday Evening Post. Perhaps the only magazine cover where Rockwell used himself as the sole model as he sits with his back to the reader and contemplates a black canvas. It’s as if he’s saying “I really look like this.”
But he really doesn’t. The images are jumbled with information like a color palette on the floor. “Rockwell used a standing glass palette,” says Stephanie Plunkett, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum who presides over the media preview. On the right side of “Deadline” are books with distinct titles and even a cursive dedication next to his signature. Plunkett adds that Rockwell would include such names at random.
Rockwell also used different signatures from painting to painting some of them formally blocked and stylized and others just signed.
Perfecting his ideas first with pencil sketches and then with charcoal on paper Rockwell used that as the template for an eventual oil painting.
One of Rockwell’s repeating characters was the American GI Willie Gillis. Gillis would appear in multiple covers of the Post depicting an American everyman during WWII. The model for Willie was the sheepish lanky Robert Otis Buck. The progression of covers follows the course of the war but there’s at least one that was not published because it was deemed too confusing. It contains men at a bar listening to a radio (obscured in darkness in the upper right corner) presumable taking in the events of D-Day. Their glances are all at different angles.
Rockwell could be brilliant in his subtle hints at motivation but the Post was rigid in its policies. For instance they would never allow Rockwell to portray a person of color in any way other than servitude.
It’s no wonder that Rockwell jumped ship in 1964 to work with Look magazine, an image heavy periodical that allowed him to express his vision more distinctly.
By the next year Rockwell would paint “Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)” depicting the murder of three Civil Rights workers in June of 1964. This exhibit has multiple versions of that painting.
Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” shows the six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal agents. Accompanying the painting are video interviews with the adult Bridges and items like one of the white dresses worn by models.
Although exhaustive by the time you reach the end you’ve gone through the major upheavals in American lifestyle in the mid-20th century: the Depression, the last World War, women in the workforce, and Civil Rights.
The holiday season offers several options at the MFAH. In addition to “American Freedom,” running until March 22, 2020 the museum showcases “Berthe Morisot: Impressionist Original” along with an assemblage of paintings titled “Monet to Picasso: A Very Private Collection.”