Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

March 15, 2011 at 1:15pm

CLAYTON ON ART: Norman Rockwell and civil rights

Murder in Mississippi (preliminary sketch), 1965 Oil on board, 15” x 12 ¾” Preliminary sketch published as the first illustration for Southern Justice, by Charles Morgan, Jr., Look, June 29, 1965 Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL. Fr

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ADDING TO THE RECORD >>>

I'd like to add a few comments to my article on the Norman Rockwell show at Tacoma Art Museum (Weekly Volcano, March 3). I voiced the usual complaint that Rockwell was too sweet, corny, sentimental and out of touch with reality - not necessarily in those words, but that was the gist of my criticism.

The thing is, we know kids are cute, especially if they look like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which all of Rockwell's kids did. We don't need an artist to illustrate that fact. Likewise, we value family, love a big Thanksgiving meal and are touched by soldiers leaving home for war and coming home from war. Most Americans are patriotic, even if we don't always express our patriotism in the same ways. Most of us are also kind of susceptible to nostalgia and have a hankering for small town values and kind of think going to church and going to school are important - although if we had our druthers we'd rather play hooky from both. Playing hooky and skinny-dipping are also all-American traditions that Rockwell celebrates, but only among kids; God forbid grownups should do such things.

Rockwell's art has universal appeal precisely because so many Americans share the likes and values he expresses and because he makes us feel good.

Underneath all the good feeling his art celebrates a world of hurt that he seemed to have never acknowledged until the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam awakened him to reality. I'm not saying artists should necessarily show the ugly side of life, but I think an illustrator with the kind of immense popularity Rockwell enjoyed owed it to his public to not be so damn Pollyannaish.

People gush over how realistic the people in his paintings are. They are realistically drawn, but they don't look real because they are such clichés. They look more like cartoons than realistic paintings.

Rockwell did finally show some gumption with his paintings of the little black girl being escorted to school by U.S. marshals (not an illustration of but symbolic of a historic event) and his painting Murder in Mississippi, illustrating the murder of the civil rights workers activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

The former is a beautifully done painting, a celebration of civil rights and condemnation of racism. It was also inventive of him not to show the marshal's faces. Their heads are cropped out of the picture. It's also strange but somehow compelling that the marshals do not react in any way to someone throwing a tomato at the little girl. Such stoicism, but if she were my little girl I'd want them to shield her and arrest the bastards that threw the tomato.

Rockwell also showed courage and conviction in Murder in Mississippi. Indicating the murderers' presence with shadows showed an  inventive flair for drama never seen in his earlier illustrations, and the preliminary sketch included in the exhibition shows a loose painting style that I wished he'd used in some of his finished work.

Filed under: All ages, Arts, Tacoma,

Comments for "CLAYTON ON ART: Norman Rockwell and civil rights" (2)

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Susan Christian said on Mar. 15, 2011 at 3:31pm

Nicely said, A. But about Murder in Mississippi, looks a lot like a preliminary sketch to me. That would help explain the hard-hitting nature of it (if true). If he'd had time to nice it up, it might have become corny in the way we look at it; even if not in the way he framed it; and being himself, I think he'd have reframed it before he published it.

It's a good painting. Makes me feel the difficult feelings, like a good painting can and probably should.

love, S.

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John Briner said on Mar. 20, 2011 at 6:45pm

I have to agree that Rockwell's art has an undertone that depicts the world of hurt. I must say that although some of them are already a cliche, they illustrate how cruel life can be. Overall, I think, Rockwell's works are excellent.

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