Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rockwell as Illustrator: Painting "that which was to be expressed"

Norman Rockwell is closely connected to the Saturday Evening Post--so closely connected in the public mind that some people think he painted all the Post's covers during his time with them.  Of course, he did not: it was a weekly magazine!  But he painted many Post covers, and many of his best-loved images were painted for the Post.

Rockwell is also widely considered to be a kind of chronicler of classic ("nostalgic"!) small-town life, or of an idealized rural world.  His Rockwellian view of things presents cute, folksy, happy people doing cute, folksy things.  Happily.  And he denies the intrusion of the ugly or the sorrowful into this idealized world.

This latter view of Rockwell is just as erroneous as the former--the view that he painted all the Post's covers--even though they're both understandable errors in some sense.  And in a funny way, I think they're connected.

The former is an understandable error (among those, I mean, who simply know Rockwell from casual viewing of calendars and suchlike) simply because people hear that Rockwell painted Post covers, and they make the leap to thinking he painted them all.

The latter is an understandable error for many reasons, some of them explained in the above link.  But obviously, there are many pictures by Rockwell that show cute kids doing cute stuff (or nostaligic pictures of olden times, or whatever), so the leap to thinking that that's just what he did is a fairly natural one.  And here's how the two errors are sort of connected.

When a critic privileges the Post covers (knowingly or unknowingly) so that they dominate and define Rockwell's work, that critic will find it easier to lump his pictures together as though they're all of a piece.  But Rockwell was a commercial artist, and adapted himself to his assignments.  He painted for the Post as the Post wanted him to paint.  It happens, I believe, that Rockwell was not only exceedingly good at painting such images, but he also found eventually that they suited him.  But for a great part of his career, he really did buck against the limitations of the Post.  (I won't go into depth in trying to explain that claim here: one needs look no further than, for example, his excursions to France to try to learn "modern art," or his repeated assertions that he was tired of doing "kid pictures" as convincing evidence that he found the job somewhat limiting.)

But it's well worth asking yourself: why should the Post (or, for that matter, the Boy Scout calendars) define Rockwell's work?  Why are those jobs more central to him than, say, his story illustrations?  Take a look at this one.  Not exactly "Rockwellian," is it?  Why would Rockwell paint such a thing?  He was offered the job, he accepted it, and he made a painting that fit the story.  I wrote in my last post about Rockwell's determination always to tell a story with his pictures.  That's what he did: he told stories.  And the story he told in his pictures had to fit the assignment he'd accepted.  That's part of life as a commercial artist.  For this reason (among others), Roger Reed's insistence (noted in that last link) that Rockwell be understood as an illustrator is a crucial point.  When he went to his easel, Rockwell wasn't doing the same thing that, say, van Gogh was doing when he went to his.  This doesn't mean Rockwell wasn't a "Real Artist."  It means he was a Real Artist who was also a Working Artist.

His profession--illustrator--put constraints on his work.  When Rockwell made a painting, he wasn't setting out to express himself.  He did express himself (what, exactly, that means, I will look into in a future post).  But expressing himself wasn't the point of the exercise.  Here, Ananda Coomaraswamy can help:

…the free man is not trying to express himself, but that which was to be expressed.  Our conception of art as essentially the expression of a personality, our whole view of genius, our impertinent curiosities about the artist’s private life, all these things are the products of a perverted individualism…   (Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, 39)

Traditionally, Coomaraswamy says, the artist aims to express "that which was to be expressed."  That which was to be expressed.  For many years now, however, we westerners have tended to assume that artists ought to be expressing themselves.  Regardless of whether you agree with Coomaraswamy that the individualism involved here is perverted, it should be clear that it is a form of individualism that is at best philosophically and theologically questionable, and that it's a change from more traditional ways of approaching art.  Larry Shiner has more recently written about these matters, and has produced an outstanding study of the development of our modern notions of art.  His book is more accessible than Coomaraswamy's, and it's not tied to Coomaraswamy's interesting but obviously controversial underlying philosophical notions.

So as an illustrator--a working artist painting on assignment--Rockwell set about expressing that which was to be expressed.  This doesn't separate him from the great tradition of art, it unites him with it.  The Post was one of Rockwell's most significant professional associations, and he painted some wonderful covers for them.  But for a critic to privilege the Post artistically, as though somehow the Rockwell who shows up on the cover of the Post is more truly the Real Rockwell than the Rockwell who shows up in, say, an illustration for Huckleberry Finn, or even an advertising image for Rock of Ages, or Coca Cola, is simply for that critic to fail to understand who Rockwell really was.

It's true that in his magazine covers, Rockwell was the author of his own little story, whereas in his story illustrations, he was working on someone else's story.  One might think this makes the covers more "his" in some way.  And perhaps that's true--but it's not at all inconsistent with what I'm arguing here.  Even if the cover story is his through and through, he still needed for his story to be entirely in keeping with the wishes of his employers, and he needs the story to be suitable for the medium.  Sometimes, Rockwell wasn't entirely honest with himself about this latter element, and got carried away with a manifestly unsuitable idea.  For example, he once got carried away with an idea for a "mystery" cover, and he lined up a handful of top movie stars to pose for him.  He eventually had to dump the picture, because it just was not suitable for a magazine cover.

This may raise issues for you: you may think that if Rockwell was willing to subjugate his own artistic impulses in order to paint someone else's vision, that makes him some kind of hack.  I'd say, no, that makes him a working artist.  But I'd also say, of course Rockwell was always painting his own vision, too.  As I said earlier, he did, of course, express himself in his work.  How could he fail to?  Self-expression wasn't the point of the work, but in a sense it's what gives the work its enduring value.  For Rockwell's vision is one that's sorely needed.  It's one that turns the world upside down for us.  I'll explain in my next post.

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