A few weeks ago, I was in D.C. and decided to join those wandering through the Smithsonian American Art Museum on their lunch hour. The big exhibit was Telling Stories, which linked Norman Rockwell and his snapshot style to major motion pictures. The painting and sketches on display were from the personal collections of filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and the placards included their take on the tales the artworks conveyed.
It’s no surprise that Rockwell’s illustrations have inspired Hollywood. Most of them convey with a single frame a raw experience of humanity — the same experience, or maybe even broader, than what a movie does in 106 minutes. Rockwell’s brilliance lies in his ability to set the scene, incorporating details like an unruly hat or earned pilot wings pinned just so, so that the viewer can look at the still life and she her own life reflected back at her. People see themselves — or their neighbor, their father, their hero — in Rockwell’s work. He captured an era in an incredible way.
For me, the most profound part of looking at Rockwell paintings is that you’re invited into a silent moment with the people depicted. Often, the subjects are not speaking, and it as if the viewer is stealing a look, like glimpsing a scene through a door accidentally left ajar. In “Girl at Mirror” (1954) a barefoot girl about 11 practices a pout in front of a large mirror, her chestnut hair maturely twisted back, and a picture of Rita Hayworth on her lap. A doll is tossed to the side; uncapped lipstick suggests haste. But there she sits, looking at herself, and — at least for any woman — the image resonates. You can read her thoughts on her face because they’re your thoughts: Am I pretty? Could I be glamorous? When will I grow up? Why do I have to be young? Am I anything at all like my hero?
Rockwell himself said, “In my opinion nothing should ever be shown in a picture which does not contribute to telling the story the picture is intended to tell.”
In “The Storyteller’s Art” from the May issue of America, Terrance W. Klein calls Rockwell’s oeuvre “incarnational” and “art that reveals” — a body of images that accurately expresses the human condition while nourishing the spirit. This is what is so enduring about Rockwell’s illustrations, which included covers for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1962. Rockwell’s straightforward approach, rather than simply painting a scene, tells a story, and this method of giving the message, rather than hiding it, has friends like Michelangelo, Giotto, and other greats. And, it’s for exactly this — the “unsophistication” of direct storytelling — that critics have belittled his work.
Yet, Norman’s art deserves a much deeper — and longer — look, Klein argues.
“Unlike conceptual art, which seeks to evoke only a notion or an emotion, the nature of illustration embraces narration and storytelling, an attribute it shares with medieval stained glass windows, which taught the Gospel my means of imagery,” he writes.
“Good art helps us to perceive something of this world’s truth and, this world’s beauty,” he adds.
The author links this idea to Los Angles’ Cathedral of the Angels presence within the city sprawl — the real, gritty, beautiful presence of art in the real world. This comment reminded me of that cathedral’s saint tapestries, showing holy men and women lined in a perpetual procession toward the altar. The artistry itself is astounding, but what I found most compelling is the way the saints were shown — not airbrushed, effeminate or aloof, but real, worn, and lifelike. Totally Rockwellian.
They could have been the kid next to you at Mass, or the woman you passed on the street. For once, it really struck me that saints were real — are —people, and they didn’t walk around with light emanating from their heads. And in that moment, when one thinks, “They were like me,” he is simultaneously impelled to ask, “So, could I be like them?”
I think it’s the best contemporary Catholic artwork out there right now.
And, it’s good because it’s incarnational. And its artist John Nava could say the same thing Rockwell did: “I paint human-looking humans. . . . All of the artist’s creativeness cannot equal God’s creativeness.”