Memorial Day weekend in Washington is always a heady experience for people watchers, but this year, with the dedication of the Mussolini-esque World War II Memorial, the city seems full of veterans in their 80s accompanied by their attentive middle-aged children and respectful grandchildren.
The Greatest Generation gives the impression that patriotism is a die-for-your-country, fight-tyranny concept, more resolute than the vagaries of terrorism, Iraq and homeland security. After Pearl Harbor, there was no recourse, the wisdom goes, and America was solid not divided about the war.
I decided to see if the citys art museums had anything more to say.
Among my finds was a tiny but effective photo-and-documents exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, "That the Freedom of the Human Spirit Shall Go On: World War II and the National Gallery of Art, relaying the story of the museum's attempt during the war to house several endangered European collections.
Though informative, this historical exhibition was uneventful. But over at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, I found a show that proved far more eloquent. It documented the way that images by Norman Rockwell, Americas foremost artist-illustrator of the World War II era, became the backbone and leitmotif for a major war-bond campaign.
Norman Rockwells Four Freedoms: Paintings that Inspired a Nation, co-organized with the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., is also a history show documenting the conception and impact of these iconic oil-on-canvas illustrations.
In the late 1950s, when I was more or less ten years old, I had no idea about these images enormous impact. I didnt know that right after they were published by Saturday Evening Post, Rockwells images were reproduced on posters and paraded around the country in fund-raising exhibitions which garnered $132 million in war-bond sales. I simply loved them. How can a child resist the simple message of a man bravely speaking out in a town meeting (Freedom of Speech), people with wrinkly faces and hands praying (Freedom of Worship), a sunlit Thanksgiving table with lots of yummy food (Freedom from Want) and kids, just like me and my sister, being tucked in by a nice-looking Mom and Dad (Freedom from Fear)?
When the Rockwell retrospective visited the Corcoran in 2000, these paintings, like many others assembled for the show, struck me as technically impressive but too tied to didactic messages and caricature to be taken seriously as art.
My attitude reflected a personal bias against illustrators in general, which was unswayed by Dave Hickeys comparisons in the catalog between Rockwell and Vermeer. But today, now that the John Currin thing is behind us and a lot of people are taking Victorian painting seriously, I figure that it would be worth taking another look at the famous quartet.
With that said, I was still not wholly enthusiastic. History exhibitions are not my thing, and this one is overflowing with texts, documents and noise. Not that I have a problem with newsreel loops of Franklin D. Roosevelts patrician oratory. After all the paintings are based on his Four Freedoms speech of 1941. I was just not too excited by the prospect of listening to a street-smart newsman interviewing Rockwell in his New England studio.
Displayed in their own gallery, the canvases are larger than anticipated. They stand almost 4 x 3 ft each. Below each one, a case displays a copy of the 1943 Saturday Evening Post open to a full-page reproduction of the painting opposite on that particular Freedom by Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, Carlos Bulosan (an unknown then and now) and Stephen Vincent Bent.
Comparing a mass-media reproduction to the original is a meaty exercise. The standing figure in Freedom of Speech, who is nearly life-size on canvas has, at his full height, the authority, poignancy and neurotic nuance of a Thomas Eakins portrait. His skin tones, eyes, fingernails and the texture of his cloth are rendered with extraordinary attention to nuance and exactitude. Rockwell apparently agonized over the work, and it shows (the next room shows an early study). Had he eliminated or reduced the goofball expressions of fellow citizens listening with cocked heads which was charming on the printed page but far too distracting on this scale -- he might have had a masterpiece on his hands.
In contrast, the Thanksgiving dinner scene, Freedom from Want, is much less impressive as a painting. One of its best attributes in reproduction is the a silvery autumn light coming from behind the figures, a quality that does not translate on the larger canvas because Rockwells application of paint seems uncharacteristically tacky and amateurish. I had to read the label to be sure Rockwell wasnt anachronistically using acrylic squeezed out of a tube.
As for the frieze of faces awaiting the feast, smiling expressions are nice in real life, but how long can a viewer linger on a happy face (even if painted by Franz Hals, sorry to say) before it just becomes cloying? Rockwell was clearly trying to achieve some reference to an artistic tradition and there is a guy in the lower right-hand corner whose positioning successfully invites you in as in Baroque religious art but the problem with this painting is that it is a painting, when it should have stayed on the magazine page. Like an Annie Liebowitzs images blown-up large, you get the point quickly and miss the possibility of moving on by flipping the page.
The golden light in Freedom of Faith, symbolizing Gods grace, and the somewhat smug message about safety in Freedom from Fear show dexterity and skill at simply making his point, but when cartoonish hyperboles creep in, as with the wall of Saturday Evening Post wartime covers ending the exhibition, the effect can be tiresome.
Could Rockwell someday take a place in the art-historical lexicon alongside the great 20th-century realists like Edward Hopper or Grant Wood? Would be sit with earlier illustrational painters such as John Sloan, Winslow Homer or Honor Daumier? For revisionists, the answer is yes but for right now, let us be content acknowledging that he lifted American morale during World War II and sparked the imaginations of many, many children thereafter.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is a artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.