“American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell” by Deborah Solomon

I remember the “Saturday Evening Post” and its Norman Rockwell covers. I don’t remember when I learned to read well enough to enjoy the contents, but the covers attracted me even earlier. The “Post” may have been our only magazine. It was supplemented by two different newspapers and a TV that received two channels, sometimes. That was the Fifties, for me.

Norman Rockwell was an illlustrator. Experts disagree about whether he was an artist. I enjoyed Solomon’s comments on Rockwell’s paintings. She pointed out details I might have missed. Rockwell was much scorned by “modern” artists like the Abstract Expressionists. Solomon tears them to shreds… “What was Abstract Expressionism? In a way, it strove to be the opposite of a vacuum cleaner – devoid of practical value, spewing out particles of color rather than pulling them in, unaccompanied by user directions, incomprehensible to the average person.” (The vacuum was iconic of the appliances that suddenly appeared in American homes after World War II.) Take that, abstractionists!

Rockwell did not have a “Norman Rockwell” childhood, and as an adult he found relationships difficult. He may have suffered from OCD, and he invested heavily in psychiatric counseling, although he did not actually engage in psychoanalysis. It can be argued that his artwork expressed how he wanted life to be. He wanted the small town life where people looked out for one another.

So why did Rockwell, whose work was heartwarming and often “nostalgic”, jump into social criticism in the 1960s? His 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With”, showing a tiny African American child being escorted by federal marshals during school desegregation, is an incredibly powerful commentary on American life. The book includes the newspaper photo that inspired the painting. Another painting with a civil rights theme was “New Kids in the Neighborhood”, an optimistic look at integration.

Solomon describes “Rockwell’s great theme” as “the possibility that Americans might pause for a few seconds and notice each other”. Many of his pictures have a “witness” quality. The figures in his work “…have all the time in the world to linger and talk”. Rockwell was, however, essentially a lonely man.

 

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