The Post was the most popular magazine in America in the 20th century, and millions of Americans eagerly awaited the latest cover by Norman Rockwell. He illustrated contemporary America better than any one else.
His paintings began before World War I and covered America up until the moon landings in the ‘60s. Besides the work for the Post, he did paintings for corporate advertising and The Reader’s Digest advertising promotions. He was truly “America’s artist.”
We can learn much more about Rockwell and his work by visiting the Birmingham Museum of Art from now until Jan. 6. A major exhibition, “Norman Rockwell’s America,” features many original paintings and all of the original Post covers.
It is a delightful trip through the America of the 20th century, seen through the art of this master storyteller. Many Anniston families subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, and many of us will recognize long-forgotten favorite covers while enjoying the exhibition.
The greatest value of this show is to help us understand what a truly great artist Rockwell was, in every sense of the word. His paintings show unforgettable characters in typically American scenes. More importantly, each painting tells a complete story that gives the viewer full understanding about the image.
For example, in “Choir Boy Combing Hair for Easter” (1954), we see a wonderful image of a young man frantically trying to tame a cowlick before going into the Easter service. His posture is intent and he seems quite serious in trying to look just right for the adults.
The chaotic debris on the floor tells who he really is. The skates and sneakers and casually discarded shirt belie the identity that he has to shed to be the proper Choir Boy.
When you see the actual Saturday Evening Post cover on the wall, you recognize a capable illustration that clearly shows the subject and the situation that Rockwell depicted.
However, if you walk over to the original oil painting that was reproduced on the cover, you see something else entirely — and that’s the value of this exhibition. You see an incredibly detailed and skillfully rendered work of art that seems to glow under the museum’s lighting.
On a museum wall, the original is something far, far better than that flat, dull and cheaply reproduced magazine cover. It is a revelation to see just how good Rockwell was at his craft. These paintings are magnificent. His interest-ing characters become subjects of serious art.
Rockwell produced hundreds of high-quality illustrations, often as commercial assignments with definite limits placed on content and message, and always under a strict deadline. This way of working — in oils, as did the classicists — would be impossible for many of the 20th century’s “fine art” celebrities.
Rockwell couldn’t indulge himself with freedom of subject as did Miro and Mondrian and Pollock. He was essentially doing work-for-hire for magazines and companies that wanted their products featured prominently.
Coca-Cola commissioned him to do a series of ads for their product. The large-scale paintings each tell a story through the characters, and it is no coincidence that their enjoyment of life seems to come from the Coca-Cola bottles featured in each painting.
Throughout his career, Rockwell acknowledged that he was an “illustrator,” not a “fine art painter.” This distinction rankles his many fans, who consider his work to transcend the limitations that the title implies.
Art historians will draw a distinction between “illustrators” and “artists,” and it seems unfair to rank Rockwell with the mere illustrators. Placing his paintings in a museum setting gives them a gravity and seriousness that they deserve.
By carefully studying the dates of the paintings in the exhibition, it’s possible to see what Rockwell wanted to do with his art from the early years.
Two paintings from 1922 — very early in his career — clearly use the strong side-lighting of Vermeer and Rembrandt with great skill. “The Party after the Party” and “Santa’s Workshop” both use the low-color values and chiaroscuro effects of the Renaissance to show contemporary subjects.
Santa’s expression is a window into his soul, rendered with great skill and empathy.
The elderly lady and young girl in “The Party after the Party” are beautifully lit by a single light bulb that infuses the whole scene with warmth. Although his task was to create a painting to advertise Edison light bulbs, Rockwell did all he could to also produce a skilled work of contemporary art.
“Bridge Game — The Bid” was the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in May 1948. By this time, Rockwell had painted his way through World War II and produced notable paintings promoting war bonds and the war effort. By the late ’40s he was ready to lighten up and show his characters in a very modern way.
“The Bid” uses a vertiginous overhead viewpoint to show four bridge players and their hands all at the same time. The diagonal composition and strong use of color heighten the effect. The bright red and yellow squares of color are an obvious quote of Piet Mondrian’s “Composition C” from 1935. It is an almost photo-realistic rendering that is quite the departure for Rockwell.
Once again, the original magazine cover shown in the exhibition is a pale substitute for the original painting nearby. There’s no way one can appreciate what Rockwell was doing without spending time with these original paintings.
Rockwell is a much better artist than he was given credit for, and that’s quite a shame. Here’s a poignant comment that sums up the dilemma: Late in his life Rockwell observed, “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I know nothing about art but I love your work.’ Just once I’d like someone to walk up to me and say, ‘I know a lot about art and I love your work.’”
David Cummings is a fine art photographer who has traveled as far afield as Antarctica, camera in hand. When he’s not traveling, he runs a dental practice in Anniston.
Norman Rockwell’s America
What: 52 original paintings and drawings, as well as all 323 Saturday Evening Post covers Rockwell created between 1916 and 1963.
When: Through Jan. 6.
Where: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. (formerly 2000 8th Ave. N.), Birmingham.
Info: 205-254-2565, www.artsbma.org.