Early on in Steven Spielberg's 1987 "Empire of the Sun," before the Japanese invasion of Shanghai shatters the privileged world of the movie's young British hero, we see the boy in the comfort of his own bedroom. In the dim room, the mother's face glows as she tucks her son into bed, while the father, reading glasses and newspaper in hand, walks into the room and for a moment leans over both of them.
FOR THE RECORD:
Norman Rockwell paintings: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about an exhibit of Steven Spielberg's and George Lucas' Norman Rockwell paintings described the boy in Rockwell's "Boy and Father: Baseball Dispute" as wearing "umpire gear." He is wearing catcher's gear. —
The scene looks as though it's straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And it is just that, according to Spielberg. "I based the scene of the parents tucking Jim into bed on Rockwell's 'Freedom From Fear,'" he says, adding that the page that Jim carries with him into the internment camp was a replica of the painting. "I think his 'Freedom' series best represent these ideals of family, home, community."
This particular image, "Freedom From Fear," belongs to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. But Spielberg owns another painting from the illustrator's famous wartime "Freedom" series: a 1943 oil study for "Freedom of Speech," which started the suite. And that image of a man speaking out at a town hall meeting is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., starting Friday, as part of a show featuring Rockwell works from the collections of Spielberg and George Lucas.
"Telling Stories" has 57 works in all, primarily paintings, drawn exclusively from the holdings of the two filmmakers and longtime friends. The idea for the show grew out of a conversation that Spielberg had a couple years ago with art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, in which he suggested that he and Lucas owned enough paintings for a serious show.
"Here's the problem," Guggenheim remembers telling Spielberg. "What the world doesn't need now is just another Rockwell show. But what if it's not just about Rockwell, but about how two of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century connect to one of the greatest storytellers of the early 20th century?"
When she brought the idea two years ago to Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum, Guggenheim says, she had the pitch down to three words. "I called her up and said, 'Spielberg, Lucas, Rockwell,' and she said 'yes' almost that fast."
So the exhibition has three subjects in a way, exploring their various connections through catalog essays as well as video interviews with the filmmakers.
"There's a different lens for looking at Rockwell because of how George and Steven see their pictures," says the show's curator, Virginia Mecklenburg. "They are both drawn to Rockwell's stories — the way an entire narrative unfolds because of how he crafts a single frame."
Interviewed separately for this article, both Spielberg and Lucas said they grew up looking at Rockwell's work in the form of his hugely popular Saturday Evening Post covers. But neither one started collecting his work until they had some cash on hand from their first blockbuster movies of the 1970s.
Lucas' first purchase, following the success of " Star Wars," was "Boy and Father: Baseball Dispute," the spring entry in Rockwell's 1962 Four Seasons Calendar. One of the most all-American images of many all-American works in the show, it captures a tense moment between a father and his son, who wears umpire gear and points to home plate defiantly. It's easy to imagine the disputed call that came before it.
Spielberg's first Rockwell, also in the show, was "And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable," a 1923 advertisement for the typewriter company that tells a story about a story: a studious-looking, clean-cut boy sits at his typewriter with a thought-bubble device above revealing his dramatic vision of the rugged frontiersman.
For Lucas, who owns more than 50 works by Rockwell, the artist is part of a much larger collection of American illustration art from 1850 to 1950, which he says he could buy in some volume because the work was relatively affordable, especially when he started. (Rockwell's prices have since soared, with his current auction record standing at $15.4 million.)
The interest stems, he says, from a onetime desire to be an illustrator. As a teenager in the early '60s, he drew pictures — especially pictures of cars — for fun. He paid the rent in Malibu one summer away from home by selling his own paintings of "large-eyed beach bunnies." (He says his angst-ridden portraits of "morose, Giacometti-style, dark-eyed, struggling, suffering people" were not so commercial.)
"Before I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to Art Center in Los Angeles, but my father wouldn't pay for it," he says, describing the roundabout way he ended up transferring to USC for film.