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Friday, April 29, 2011

"American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell" Draws Crowds, and Emotional Responses

"Going and Coming," Norman Rockwell 1947
       Yesterday afternoon, at the Tacoma Art Museum, I rediscovered and embraced an old friend from my past, one I thought had died and been buried: my own culture.
        The American aesthetic I'd grown up with surrounded me in the 40 or so paintings and 323 original Saturday Evening Post covers in an exhibition titled, "American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell," running through May 30. For better or worse (and mostly better) we faced each other again, and I had tears in my eyes.
       As much as I appreciate and respect what is now a hallowed word,"diversity," and all the things different cultures bring to our society, I've missed the America of my childhood. In the post WWII era, the hallowed word was still "unity." I hope I will see the day when all these diverse religious, ethnic, political, and philosophical groups will stop suspecting, criticizing, and battling each other. I hope we, as Americans, can come together to rediscover the importance and power of that word.
       A young man whose job title was "Visitor Services Representative" stood near me, observing the reactions of a crowd of mostly baby boomers, and beyond, and I could not stop myself from asking for his thoughts, his own view from across a generation or two. I felt pleased, and somewhat relieved, to discover how grateful he felt for the opportunity to see this exhibition and get a better sense of America's past.
       "People come up and tell me stories of their childhood and the memories these images bring back," he said. "It sets up a context for that period of time." He spoke of how his eyes had been opened to aspects of daily life in an earlier America, things most in his generation remain unaware of as they live in their own present. I told him he was lucky to learn these things, and that he would be a more deeply aware and thoughtful citizen for the experience. He believed me. He also pointed out guest books, where visitors could record their feelings, thoughts, and memories.

"Freedom of Speech," Norman Rockwell 1943
       Norman Rockwell's career spanned 65 years and produced around 4,000 works of art. Like our nation itself, he grew and changed. An optimist by nature, he is usually remembered for his warmly nostalgic, funny, and charming images of a mostly white, middle class, happy society. Some we've all seen a million times. Others were new to me.
        But don't think of his art as simply bucolic. Serious issues, like racism, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam ate away at him. He had always used his talent for art's most noble purpose, to make people think, but as time went on, he more urgently challenged the hearts and minds of Americans.
       He painted "Murder in Mississippi" to illustrate an article titled Southern Justice, written by Charles Morgan Jr. for Look magazine and published in 1965. It shows, with ugly realism, the slayings of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1963, he painted "The Problem We All Live With." In it, a lone little black girl is shown on her way to school, escorted by bodyguards. It was inspired by six-year-old Ruby Bridges, whose attendance at a previously all-white school was a milestone in the era of school desegregation. Now, as an adult who dedicates her life to fighting racism, Bridges will visit the art museum on May 21 to tell her story. In his own way, Norman Rockwell helped to make this visit possible.
        Don't miss "American Chronicles." If we share the same culture, I promise it will take you back in time. If we don't, I promise it will educate you. In any case, I hope this trip to the past will help take us forward into a more unified and humane future.

Images shown in this article were provided by the Tacoma Art Museum, to be used only in conjunction with promotion of this exhibition. These works are part of the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum and are licensed by the Curtis Publishing Co.

Note: You can read another  review of the exhibition in my arts column on University Place Patch. Be sure to check the website of the Tacoma Art Museum for information on this exhibition and related events, including the lecture by Ruby Bridges.

Copyright 2011, by Candace J. Brown

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