Thursday, January 6, 2011

Norman Rockwell: Painter of the American Story

This week our homeschool group went on an educational tour of the exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art entitled "American Chronicles:  The Art of Norman Rockwell."  It is a fabulous exhibit, and, as always, the Museum has put together a wonderful educational tour that is perfect for middle schoolers.

Both the exhibit in general and the tour in particular focus on Rockwell as an artist whose work always tells a story.  And, in general, that story is something sweet or humorous or heart warming about America.  But his stories are not just about America as a concept; their are odes to the everyday, to the common folk, to the ordinary mini-dramas that most of us overlook every day.  Yet, as you look at his art, it makes you think, "These things--these common, everyday people and occurrences--they are so beautiful, so filled with meaning and emotion.  How can I pass by them every day and miss them?"

Norman Rockwell himself said about his art:
Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. My fundamental purpose is to interpret the typical American....
Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.

I think this is a great message for middle schoolers today to hear, born as they were into a culture that seems to worship celebrity over almost everything else and everyone is striving for their 15 minutes of fame promised them by Andy Warhol.  His art is a great companion to the poems of Walt Whitman, the plays of Thornton Wilder, the music of Aaron Copeland, all American artists who found inspiration not in the high and mighty, but in the American Everyman.

He is also a great role model, however, for the care he put into his work as well as his prodigious production abilities.  The tour and exhibit depict how carefully he worked on his illustrations--posing live models, taking photographs, making multiple sketches, then one complete drawing of the final piece before capturing it on canvas.  When you see how much work went into each detail of each painting, you really can't imagine how the man managed to produce more than 4,000 original works.  This really hits home in one large room of the exhibit, where they show all 323 covers of the Saturday Evening Post he created in the 47 years he was their chief illustrator.  You look at all those masterpieces, month after month, year after year, and you can't help but be impressed.

However, not all of Rockwell's art was goodness and light.  In his latter years, instead of resting on his laurels, he began to explore some of the civil rights issues that had been prohibited from his Saturday Evening Post covers.  Here, the tour guide was phenomenal.  She took the students through the story of Rockwell's painting, Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi), the very chilling depiction of the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in 1964 (click on this link to see the picture itself).  The children were silent and riveted as the tour guide told them about this event and Rockwell's attempts to convey it on canvas.  It's a powerful picture and a powerful story, and very appropriate for middle schoolers, who are grappling with understanding the darker side of history than most of us glossed over when they were in elementary school.

The exhibit will be in Raleigh until January 30, so if you can get there to see it before then, I recommend you do so.    The exhibit reminded me of perhaps Wilder's most famous quote in Our Town:  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?  Well, if anyone ever did, it was Norman Rockwell.

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