Wednesday, May 6, 2015

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the Tampa Museum of Art

The art of Norman Rockwell is synonymous with The Saturday Evening Post. And why wouldn't it be?  From 1916-1963, he created 321 covers for the magazine, reaching more than 2 million households each week. Rockwell called himself a reporter of present events and contemporary America. The American media called him the "Dickens of the paintbrush."  Regardless of what words you use, there's little doubt that Rockwell was a master storyteller.

Welcome to Elmville
The American Chronicles exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art gives visitors an opportunity to see the scope of Rockwell's work.  The Norman Rockwell Museum, which organized the show, created a terrific family guide that encourages kids of all ages to engage with the art.  In addition, each painting has a fulsome description that fills viewers in on the background for the image. "Fun facts" are interspersed throughout. Take Rockwell's "Welcome to Elmville" as an example.  The painting shows a new-found way for towns to raise money -- the speed trap. Viewers learn that typical speed limits were 20 mph in business districts and 45 mph on highways and that Ford's Model A cars could run at 60 mph. The family guide invites kids to come up with a slogan for the painting, giving the example of "Welcome to Elmville - a place where life slows down." (I couldn't come up with anything more clever.)

While I was impressed with The Saturday Evening Post portion of the exhibit, I have to admit that Americana doesn't fully engage me. It's an interesting slice of life that goes in one eye and out the other.  But there's more to Rockwell's art.

Rockwell in his studio
In my last post I wrote about hearing Ruby Bridges--whose image is captured in "The Problem We All Live With"--speak at the Museum about her memories of integration. Rockwell's foray into political art ended his 47 year relationship with The Saturday Evening Post. It was the policy of The Post to only include images of African-Americans at work in service industry jobs. A painting about the issue of integration was clearly not going to grace its cover. And so Rockwell parted ways with The Post, taking his work to Look magazine.

Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)
The most striking painting in the exhibit was entitled  "Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)."  In 1964, Look commissioned Rockwell to create a painting to accompany an investigative article about the murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi. The exhibit includes some of the reference photos and notes that Rockwell compiled over the five weeks he dedicated to creating this work. His notes included information not only about what the men were wearing and how they had been killed but also that the temperature exceeded 100 degrees that day and that victim Andrew Goodman was an atheist. The painting was originally intended to span two pages, with the right hand page showing Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and the other lawmen responsible for the killings with guns and billy clubs in hand. (This version of the work was included in the exhibit as well.) Ultimately, the magazine decided that the inclusion of only the men's shadows conveyed the sense of menace more effectively.
I found my thoughts returning to "Murder in Mississippi" in the days following my visit to the exhibit. It's a prime example of the power of art to make us think and feel. 

"American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" will be on display at the Tampa Museum of Art through May 31.  It's a show well worth making the effort to see. 

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