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As American As It Gets

As American As It Gets

Like many others who grew up with his work—something that applies to virtually any American who was sentient between World War I and the Vietnam War—I always had conflicted feelings about the artist Norman Rockwell. Many of his ultra-realistic paintings charmingly and amusingly evoked poignant truths about the American experience, particularly regarding childhood and aspects of our political culture. At the same time, his numerous pictures featuring gee-whizzing boys, eager dogs and earnest young people of all stripes smacked too much of Middle American homilies and Father Knows Best acceptance of the norm, without much acknowledgment of irony, ambiguity or skepticism.

Well, it’s a bit more complex than that, as I discovered when I accepted an unexpected invitation to write my first art catalogue essay for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s show “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell,” comprised of 57 of the artist’s works owned by either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, both of whom have been major collectors for years. My son Nick (pictured above with Steven Spielberg) and I went to Washington, D.C. for the show’s opening on July 1 and learned from both directors a bit about their enthusiasm for and feelings of kinship with Rockwell, sentiments unsurprising given the emphatically optimistic and youth-centric nature of much of their own work.

Kids figure centrally in much of Rockwell’s work, so it figured that Nick, who is 12, liked a lot of the pictures. Two of his favorites date from 1923, “–And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable” and “Boy Reading Adventures Story,” both of which feature bespectacled lads conjuring images of adventure and fantasy which compositionally loom above their heads. The exploits of Indiana Jones lie very near this tree and it was not surprising to learn that the Boone painting was not only the first Rockwell that Spielberg bought but that it normally hangs above his desk at his home office, a reminder of the storyteller’s perennial search for inspiration.

Many of Rockwell’s early covers were for the Boy Scouts of America magazine “Boy’s Life.” Spielberg was an ardent Boy Scout himself and it was to earn a merit badge that he made his first film. After quickly detecting what a burgeoning film buff Nick is and learning his age, Spielberg told him, “That’s the age I started, when my father got an 8mm movie camera, so you should too.” When Nick asked Spielberg what his favorite movie is, the reply came quickly: “Number one is ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and number two is the first ‘Godfather.’” Nick had heard of these movies before and was told he’d see them when he was old enough but now, having gotten the word from one of his greatest heroes, we’ll be heading for the American Cinematheque the next time they’re shown on the big screen.

While researching and writing my essay, “Norman Rockwell’s Camera Eye,” I realized that, in several of his key films, Spielberg had transformed the artist’s archetypal New England towns, safe places where kids were free to roam and make little mischief, into the more anonymous, nondescript Arizona and California suburbs of his own peripatetic childhood. The director further injected his own experience by fracturing the painter’s idealized picture of family life with divorce. Most importantly, however, Spielberg added a whole (and crucially commercial) new layer to this vision of Americana by threatening it with some frightening outside force, be it a shark (“Jaws”), ghosts (“Poltergeist”) or aliens (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “War of the Worlds”), only to reaffirm it in the end. And then there are the numerous representations of pristine small town in films Spielberg produced, such as the “Gremlins” and “Back to the Future” entries.

Spielberg concurred with this interpretation, adding that, in staging a scene for his 1987 war drama “Empire of the Sun,” he directly lifted from Rockwell’s 1943 “Freedom from Fear,” which shows a mother arranging her sleeping children’s bed covers while the father looks on with a newspaper bearing the headlined words “bombings” and “horror.” “Freedom from Fear” is part of Rockwell’s celebrated “Four Freedoms” series, the most of famous of which, “Freedom of Speech,” offers the ultra-Capraesque image of a working man standing at a smalltown public meeting to speak his mind. This simple, striking picture may be stirring for some and cornball for others, but it undeniably evokes in the purest of terms one of the nation’s founding principles. Rockwell himself pointed out that, when he witnessed such a scene in real life, he was struck by how the others in attendance listened politely, in deference to the dictates of the First Amendment if not common courtesy. The sad fact is that one doubts if this would hold true today, what with our recent history of Jerry Springer shoutdowns, Republicans spouting off during the president’s State of the Union speech and liberal universities preventing conservative guests from speaking on campus.

All of Rockwell’s pictures tell little stories, hence the title of the show. But beyond this, I sensed from Spielberg’s comments that Rockwell’s world is the United States the filmmaker loves most. Time and again, Spielberg has returned for subject matter to World War II, a period that particularly inspired Rockwell, from “Rosie the Riveter” to the poignancy of soldiers returning home. Spielberg believes America is still animated by the same impulses that drove the greatest generation— love of country, integrity, selfless acts, civic responsibility, uncelebrated heroism, decency and a belief in our elemental freedoms—and this accounts for much of what links him to Rockwell. “My vision is very similar to his,” said Spielberg, who has no doubt that, had Rockwell been born a generation or two later, he would have found his natural home in movies or television.

For Lucas, the connection is somewhat different. Initially reticent to loan out his collection but ultimately convinced by Spielberg, Lucas made one film, “American Graffiti,” that is arguably Rockwellian in its nostalgic portrait of a small American town. But as the “Star Wars” cycle amply demonstrates, it’s myth and archetype that preoccupy Lucas and he believes that Rockwell’s work embodies the myth of how America was, or ought to have been, during the first half of the twentieth century.

One of Rockwell’s most engaging large oils is “The Connoisseur” from 1962, which shows a balding, gray-haired, impeccably attired gentleman from the back as he closely regards a Jackson Pollock-like splattering in a gallery. This can be regarded as something of a self-portrait of Rockwell himself contemplating the challenge of abstract expressionism, but I was amused to learn that, for Spielberg, it represents Alfred Hitchcock’s bewilderment at the arrival of a new wave of young turk filmmakers.

Rockwell was first and foremost a commercial illustrator, not a creature of galleries and museums (one strong reason for the disdain he has always received from urban sophisticates), and one can draw what parallels one wants between his position in the art world to those of Spielberg and Lucas in the cinema. Rockwell periodically visited Hollywood, painting many portraits of stars–”Gary Cooper as the Texan,” from Spielberg’s collection, showing a makeup man applying bright red lipstick to the macho star, is especially delightful—and designing ad campaigns for an eclectic array of films that ranged from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Song of Bernadette” to “Old Yeller” and “Cinderfella.”

It was fun to hobnob with the Washington elite—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (pictured here with both Spielberg and Lucas) came by to schmooze with two of her most eminent California constituents—and we had the good fortune to be seated at dinner with Sue Spielberg Pasternak, the second of the director’s three younger sisters. She was a hoot as she told stories about her nerdy older brother’s childhood antics and early creative output—crude flipping pages animation of arrows shooting through skulls and other proto-Indiana Jones stuff with stick figures; of the two Rockwell collectors, Lucas was the outstanding youthful illustrator.

The show continues through the end of the year and, if I do say so myself, it’s worth a look. And, like all the Smithsonian museums, it’s free.

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