You're Not Hardcore, Unless You Live Hardcore

Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. G's birthday was this week, and what did we do to celebrate? Drunken shenanigans resulting in day-after amnesia? Nope. We had the amazing privilege of seeing a traveling exhibition of Norman Rockwell's artwork at our local art museum. It was much more awesome than any silly night of inebriated birthday revelry. Much more.

G and I have always loved Rockwell's work, so actually seeing his paintings in person was a bit overwhelming. Many people, when they think of him, just picture his work on the Saturday Evening Post, depicting idyllic, whimsical, wholesome representations of everyday life in a generally white, middle class America. Most don't consider though that the conservative Post placed many limitations on what Rockwell could portray, and once he left their employ to work for Look magazine, his work really evolved to include some extremely thought-provoking and poignant commentary on the social issues of the day, especially Civil Rights. I think earlier in his career he was of the mind that "I paint life as I would like it to be." Then later on in life he portrayed how it really was, ugliness and all.

The exhibit we saw was a chronological study of his work, from his first pieces for Boy's Life Magazine, his work for the Post, and finally his work later in life. The exhibit had a huge gallery with every single cover he made for the Post, all 323 of them!

I just adore his ability to tell stories with his work, to portray facial expressions so vibrantly and realistically, to use so many small details to add extra layers of meaning to what may initially be seen as simple illustrations. I never understood the perception that he was not a "real" artist. He was indeed popular, and I admit I myself may scoff at times at what is popular or mainstream, but he was also incredibly talented.

I wish I could have taken pictures, but they were very strict about their no-photo policy.
One of my favorite paintings from the Post era is Girl at Mirror. There is something so sad about it, those early explorations into self-doubt, personal identity, and comparing oneself to others. I think it is a piece that a lot of young girls today could resonate with.

Another one, The Problem We All Live With, literally made me shudder to see it up close and in person. This painting just this past October was hanging in the White House, and we got to see it. Inspired by the experiences of young African American children like Ruby Bridges during school racial desegregation, it was simply stunning and devastating. I mean, the departure from his work in the Post in incredible. This piece was printed in Look Magazine in 1964. I can only imagine the controversy it stirred, such a piece from whom you might consider "America's Sweetheart" artist. It surely had the power to shame, anger, and inspire his fans in different ways. There is so much symbolism, from the use of the racial epithets on the wall representing the voices from the crowd, to the headless U.S. Marshals, the wooden yet deliberate posture in the young girl's stride.  Looking up close, I could see that the red paint splattered on the canvas, the thrown tomato, is thicker and protrudes from the canvas a little. I could also see faint marks and words that I couldn't really decipher, things you can't see just on a computer screen or in a book. To see that hatred and malice represented in three dimensions like that...

A piece that I had not been familiar with prior to the exhibit was Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi). Again, it's hard to believe it's the same artist. This piece was based on an incident in 1964 when three young Civil Rights workers (two white, one black) were murdered by a group of KKK members. There was a large area devoted to this piece in the exhibit, showing initial sketches, photos, studies, and news stories of the day (including the issue of Look magazine in which a version of the piece appeared). We learned that Rockwell used his own son as a model for Michael Schwerner, who is depicted as holding up a wounded James Chaney. This piece, in mostly sepia tones, looks like a barren alien landscape to me. I can imagine it must have felt like one to be so isolated and surrounded by such violence and hatred. The only real color is the vivid blood on Chaney and staining Schwerner's shirt. I was so moved by how Schwerner is shown staring unwaveringly towards certain death, the way the two men cling to each other in a way that transcends any racial divides, and the way the mob is only shown as bestial, looming shadows on the edge of the painting.

I love Rockwell's works from the Post, but I do wish more people knew about his later works, and the brave way in which he drew attention to societal injustice. It was just a wonderful experience to see these works of art!

Oh, on a lighter note, they did have a Saturday Evening Post scene for visitors to take pictures of, I think this one turned out pretty well :) Hardcore? Well, maybe a little.

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  1. I saw the bottom illustration before reading and thought to myself.. Wow, that looks just like Liber Vix!! They sure did an excellent job. Very cool :)

  2. LOL...priceless! They had the whole Post set-up with props and everything for visitors to choose from. G took the picture, and I just edited it to look more old-fashioned.


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