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Exhibit Offers Clues to Rockwell's Sentiments

July 24, 1989|DANIEL GRANT | Christian Science Monitor

For the record, Norman Rockwell was a liberal Democrat, but one would generally be hard-pressed to figure that out from his paintings. Rockwell (1894-1978) prided himself on never revealing his own opinions. "He painted a portrait of Kennedy and one of Nixon and dared people to figure out whom he was voting for," Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, says.

Rockwell did have some partisan interests, however, such as the civil rights movement, but the problem for an illustrator whose main job is to interpret images in other people's writing is how not to compromise his own beliefs. The tension between the fine and the commercial artist is quite evident in "One Nation Indivisible?," the exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., which highlights how the artist depicted blacks over the decades.

This is the first of a series of exhibitions beginning this year--itself a noteworthy event for a museum whose permanent exhibitions have tended to change only subtly from one year to the next--that will examine the artist and his work more closely and, in this case, in a sociological context. Other displays highlighting how war or the development of technology affected America as seen through Rockwell's work are planned.

The sociological approach raises some knotty questions, however. Does one see in these works the ideas of the artist? Or of the mass media? Or of some combination of the two? Maureen Hart Hennessey, the Rockwell Museum curator who organized this exhibit, notes that by the 1950s, "Rockwell was of such stature that, had he been assigned to illustrate a story that was against his personal beliefs, he was in the position to turn it down." The content of the imagery, then, can be assumed to at least coincide with the artist's point of view. There is not a terribly strong sense of the artist's own voice, but with Rockwell, that may be all one can get at times.

Race relations were as thorny a subject as Rockwell would ever tackle, and, in his customary manner, he shied away from advocacy and focused on lives of common people.

The earliest works tend to treat race issues by ignoring them. (Presumably, the exhibition is suggesting that Rockwell was mirroring the country's refusal to deal with these issues.) Both "Woman Fallen From Horse" (1930s) and "Boy in a Dining Car" (1946) show well-to-do whites being attended by blacks. In the first picture, it is a stableboy in raggedy clothes pointing to where the horse had run off; in the second, a young man worriedly looks over a check trying to figure the tip while an older black waiter watches with a smile.

A work from 1961 that is a Saturday Evening Post cover is called "The Golden Rule" and has a United Nations theme. The painting shows peoples of all races and religions, and from all continents, clad in native dress. The words "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is printed across the cover. The suggestion of tolerance and understanding for others "truly expressed his deepest beliefs," Moffatt says. "He believed in acceptance and love of all mankind and wanted to feature man in a positive, humane role. I think that is what appealed to him about the United Nations."

Moffatt notes that "there is a widely shared perception of Rockwell that he concentrated his efforts on sentimental visions of white middle-class people." Rockwell may have been aware of that perception and may have wanted to change it; he was certainly unhappy with some of the later Saturday Evening Post editors, who had fewer and fewer challenging assignments for him. Rockwell's work had been associated with the Post since 1916.

Rockwell had been looking for a change. His wife died in 1959, and the next year he took an adult education painting class in Stockbridge, perhaps to loosen up his characteristically precisionist style of realism. He left the Post in 1963 to work for Look magazine, which published some of his most personally expressive work.

"He changed the whole style of his work after 1963," Moffatt said. His "subject matter became more current-events material. He traveled all over the world and did paintings on the Peace Corps, on the Soviet Union, on the Mideast. He also began painting some of the problems of the time."

Among the paintings used in Look are "The Problem We All Live With" (1964) and "New Kids in the Neighborhood" (1967), both of which focus attention on young children and place blacks at the center of the picture rather than as observers of the action.

"The Problem We All Live With" shows a young black girl in a starched white dress being escorted to an all-white elementary school in New Orleans by four federal marshals as part of a controversial integration order, and we look down on her both figuratively and literally. The marshals are visible only up to their shoulders, and the girl walks by a wall where the word Nigger has been written and where a tomato was recently thrown. Her head is down; she is perhaps trying not to see.

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