I went to the Chrysler Art Museum in Norfolk today to see the traveling exhibit of Norman Rockwell art on loan from the Rockwell Museum. The show is amazing, and well worth seeing. (It is in Norfolk until Feb. 1st.)Rockwell is one of my favorite artists, and has been a great influence on my work in illustrations. Many of my early posters were drawn 'in the spirit' of his work. His love of people shines in all of his paintings, especially in the attention he gives to the distinct character of each face.
Seeing his art in person is even more amazing. The cover reproductions from the magazines did not do his work justice. He worked on such a large scale that it is not surprising that he could include so much detail, and the colors are more vibrant and true to life than the reproductions.
One picture stood out to me this weekend. "The Problem We Live With." A cover he painted for Look magazine in 1964. The image is one of his most famous and controversial in its day, that of a schoolgirl being escorted to the newly integrated public school by four US Marshals. Previously, when I had seen the picture in books, I saw it simply as an image of innocence walking through danger. But looking at it upclose today, I was impressed by the courage I see in the painting. The girl in the picture is fully aware of the danger she is in, but she does not shrink from it. She keeps her head up, looking straight ahead, not looking at the crowds, or at the person who just through a tomato at her (looking at the painting, you can see just how fresh the tomato was!) You can see the muscles in her arms and hands, ready for action, the purposefulness in her step. There was another aspect that I did not see before. Because of the large scale of the picture, and its placement on the wall, I was aware, for the first time, that Rockwell puts us, the viewers, on the sidelines, perhaps just a few feet away. He makes us part of the crowd. It reminds me of the reading of the Passion story on Good Friday, when the parts of the story are acted out. The most chilling and real part of the experience for me is when we all say the part of the crowd, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" It is an uncomfortable and unsettling feeling, to know that any one of us could have been in the crowd, and in the heat of the moment, condemned an innocent person to die. This painting has the same effect. Where would you, or I, be in the crowd?Would we have thrown the tomato, or written the hateful graffiti on the wall? Would we have been silent, and let other voices cry out? Would we speak up? I think there is one final clue in Rockwells painting, that puts us in our place. The vantage point is from the eye level of the first grade schoolgirl, which means the viewer is probably the same age. A child. Perhaps the painting puts us in the place of one who may be influenced by the voice of the crowds, or be moved by the courgeous child, and follow a new path to the future.