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TV REVIEW : Life and Art of Illustrator Norman Rockwell Receive Double Exposure

November 25, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

Despite 60 years of popularity, brilliant technique and an assured place among the great American illustrators, Norman Rockwell still doesn't get much respect as an artist. The painter may have dominated the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for decades, but he isn't even listed in many books on 20th-Century American art.

On the other hand, not many other American artists, critically praised or not, ever get a TV show centered around their work. Nine years after his death, Rockwell has two this week: a documentary about him tonight ("Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait," at 8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and 9 p.m. on Channels 50 and 24), and a TV movie based on one of his paintings Thursday night ("Norman Rockwell's 'Breaking Home Ties,' " 9 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).

It's not difficult to see why Rockwell isn't a critical darling. As he admitted in 1960 concerning his previous work, "I unconsciously decided that if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be, and so I painted only the ideal aspects of it." Rockwell's art was full of apple pie and Thanksgiving turkey, baseball and the girl next door, hopeful faces, smiling faces--and until about 1960--few other than white faces.

Rockwell's America was "not so much a place as a state of mind," observes Mason Adam s, the narrator of tonight's excellent documentary. Within that context, there's a uniqueness, perhaps even a greatness. The hourlong program doesn't deny the pervading corniness of Rockwell's view, but the show makes it clear that there was more to his paintings than their photograph-like technique. His best illustrations involved viewers and made them think about the situation he had portrayed. Nor were all of the artist's subjects light-hearted: During World War II and late in his career, he capably depicted gloomier scenes, particularly some dealing with the civil-rights struggle of the '60s.

The documentary ignores the art critics but features interesting reflections from noted American observers such as Jean Shepherd, Erma Bombeck and Ellen Goodman. Though little is revealed about Rockwell's life, political views, etc., there are several examples of how his paintings deliver more than patriotic cliches. In one, the "Breaking Home Ties" cover, we're shown how expressively rendered a son and father are as they wait for a train coming to take the boy off to college--and away from the farm--for the first time.

Too bad this short but illuminating explication can't suffice. The cover is also the basis for Thursday's sporadically charming but mostly rickety TV movie. It's a curiosity piece--part anachronistic Rockwellian Americana in which small-town folk are invariably kind-hearted, and part "Summer of '42"-type writhe-of-passage, where college life turns out to be a sexual testing ground for the incredibly naive son (Doug McKeon).

There is some substance and shading here, as Mom (Eva Marie Saint) hides an incurable disease from Dad (Jason Robards) and son, but the unsettling mix of flavors--Thanksgiving turkey with chocolate sauce--doesn't go down well. It's a waste of good actors, and many viewers will find themselves doing what Rockwell revilers would do with one of his covers: Quickly flip past it.

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