October 12, 2013


The true value of Norman Rockwell, America's patriot painter : Rockwell is often called 'folksy', yet his art, which now fetches millions, was deeply engaged with the great issues of his day (Nicolaus Mills, 10/12/13, theguardian.com)

At a time when the art world is still feeling the effects of the recession, it's understandable why there should be such interest in the prices buyers are willing to pay for Rockwell's depiction of "homey, small-town America" - as one report on the Sotheby's auction put it. The problem with this focus on the dollar value of Rockwell's most nostalgic paintings, though, is that it undermines his greater importance and influence.

We forget that, in the dark days of the second world war, Rockwell played a critical role in helping Americans on the home front understand what was at stake in the fighting going on in Europe and the Pacific. The British had Lawrence Olivier reminding them of their heroic past with his Henry V of 1944. Americans had Rockwell reminding them of their basic decency.

Nowhere is Rockwell's achievement clearer than in the second world war era paintings marking their 70th anniversary this year - Rosie the Riveter and the Four Freedoms, the series Rockwell did illustrating the "four freedoms" that President Franklin Roosevelt declared were the bedrock of a democratic society.

In Rockwell's hands, the Four Freedoms cease being merely abstract principles. They become a familiar way of life, ideals worth defending: Freedom from Want shows a family sharing a Thanksgiving meal; Freedom from Fear portrays parents tucking their children into bed; Freedom to Worship consists of close-ups of people of different faiths praying; and Freedom of Speech centers on a town meeting in which a man - who looks much like a beardless Abraham Lincoln - has his say while his neighbors respectfully listen. These paintings, done in a muted palette, reflect Rockwell at his most serious.

Americans immediately took to the paintings, and in April 1943, the Four Freedoms began a nationwide tour in which over 1.2m people viewed them and also bought $132m-worth of war bonds. At a time when families planting victory gardens in their backyards accounted for 40% of the vegetables grown in the United States, the Four Freedoms confirmed how the decisions Americans made in their everyday lives mattered. When the paintings came to New York, they were not confined to a museum; they were put on display at Radio City Music Hall.

One is reminded of what Stravinsky comprehended about America.
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Posted by at October 12, 2013 9:17 AM

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