Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Race, Rockwell, and New Hampshire


On this, the day of the New Hampshire Primary, the likely second installment of the ascendance of Barack Obama, I am pleased to report—somewhat counter-intuitively, I will concede--on the publication of American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell, the new book by Linda Szekely Pero issued by our friends at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Uncle Norman (as my colleague Jeff Pike calls him) has been the beneficiary of a number of picture books, including the elephantine Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator by Thomas Buechner (published in 1971 with Rockwell’s extensive cooperation), and Pictures of the American People, edited by Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knutson and published at the opening of High Museum and NRM-organized retrospective in 1999, and others. This new book serves to document the considerable collection of the Rockwell Museum, and does a good job of it.

A notable chunk of the NRM collection includes the work Rockwell did for Look in the 1960’s when the periodical market for illustration was declining precipitously but prior editorial strictures had been lifted. During this time Rockwell, a man of left-liberal politics, was free to address the pressing topics of the day, especially the civil rights movement. His work of this period includes The Problem We All Live With (1964) and a rare treatment of incipient white flight, New Kids in the Neighborhood, (1967; at the top of this post).

If it is true, as many hope, that Obama may simultaneously become the first African-American president and the first post-racial figure in American political history, it is also--simultaneously--a long time coming and an astonishment. I have resolved to keep politics off this blog, insofar as I was raised in a legal/political family and things could easily devolve into the sort of political speculation that is everywhere on the web, especially now; my contributions will be more focused on visual culture topics. But I will acknowledge that like many I am drawn to Obama, and think him a potentially historic figure.

It also doesn’t hurt that Obama has by far the best graphic design in the campaign. Of course, as an illustrator, I would tend to think so—-the mark is plainly type-as-image. But it’s smartly done. The Obama mark was designed by Sol Sender, a Chicago graphic designer. Not to pile on, but how could it be that the Clintons would be using crappy graphic design work? What is with all the Ready business?


But what of race and art and politics? As a historical matter, Gustave Courbet set up his easel near, but before, the fork in the road between the political and artistic avant-gardes in the 1860s. After that, les artistes would (typically) subscribe to leftish politics, but their work would not address social conditions or political realities, busy as they were with exploring new visual ideas and languages. On the whole, good for them: European visual modernism was a terrific gift to the world. But the split between the political and artistic led to some striking results. Among them: American Art in the 1950’s and 60’s--a period of slow, then wrenching change in the racial politics of the country—failed to address the subject of race. Postwar American art was occupied with Abstract Expressionism and its inward psychological adventurism (sort of like a Freudian Fantastic Voyage) on the one hand, and cheeky secondhand Brillo boxes on the other. So it came to be that sentimental old Norman Rockwell painted some of the very few visual images to directly address a topic of enormous import to the nation. To the question where were you during the civil rights movement? Uncle Norman offers an admirable retort, professionally speaking.


After The Problem We All Live With ran in Look Magazine, writes Pero, Norman Rockwell received many letters criticizing his choice of subject, but irate opinions did not stop him from pursuing his course. In the 1967 painting Murder in Mississippi, he illustrated the Philadelphia slaying of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney.

So begins Pero’s illuminating chapter, “The Artist’s Process: Anatomy of Murder in Mississippi.” Pero sifts through all the NRM materials pertaining to this project, a protest painting at its core. She plucks out the reference image which Rockwell used for the major figurative grouping, a 1962 Pulitzer-winning photograph by Hector Rondon, Aid from the Padre.


Rockwell restaged the scene using his son Jarvis as Schwerner and Oliver McCary as Chaney. Pero follows the process from sketches and notes through to completion, a five-week enterprise during which Rockwell, breaking from habit, did not work on anything else. He developed an atmospheric color study which included the victims on the left, and the advancing attackers on the right. Later he omitted the attackers in the final painting, choosing a vertical composition over the double-page spread. Ultimately, after he had sent in the final painting, he was told that Look had opted to print the more atmospheric study. They were right to do so.


Pero reports that Rockwell admitted years later that by the time he’d finished the painting, “all the anger that was in the sketch had gone out of it.”

I’ll return to this subject presently with some thoughts about why, despite the nobility of his effort, Rockwell was poorly equipped to make protest images. In the meantime, congratulations to Pero and NRM on a book that contributes to Rockwell scholarship.

In the meantime, as they say in the great state of New Hampshire: Live Free or Die.

Images: Norman Rockwell, New Kids in the Neighborhood, illustration for “Negro in the Suburbs,” by Jack Star, Look, May 16, 1967; Rita Marshall, (detail of) cover design for American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell, 2007; Sol Sender graphic design, Obama logotype, 2007; Charlie Neibergall, (detail of) AP photograph on the evening of the Iowa caucuses, January 3, 2008; Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849 (destroyed in WW2); Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, Look, June 14, 1964; the image shows Ruby Bridges between four Marshals on her way into her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960 (today, Ruby Bridges sits on the NRM board); Hector Rondon, news photograph, Aid from the Padre, taken June 2, 1962, at Puerto Cabello Naval Base, Caracas during a revolt against the Venezuelan government; Padre Manuel Padilla holds a wounded soldier; Norman Rockwell, double-page tearsheet for “Southern Justice,” Look, June 29, 1965.

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