American classics make way to BMA

By on October 31, 2012

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably seen the artworks of Norman Rockwell multiple times through out your life. Whether it has been hanging in doctor’s offices, printed on postcards, or even in non-art history text books. The man’s creations are positively iconic and he is considered to be the driving force of Americana decorative art. His career in the arts spanned over a six decade period and many of his works reflect the history of the time period he was capturing.

One of Norman Rockwell's classic paintings appears at the BMA. Britty Reese/Staff Writer

Norman Rockwell’s America is an exhibit put together by the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island and will be staying in the Birmingham Museum of Art until January 6, 2013. The exhibit features fifty two original paintings and drawings, as well as all 323 magazine covers Rockwell illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963.
The exhibit is interactive, and with certain paintings, a number can be called to hear information on certain paintings. Information can also be accessed by scanning a Quick Response code on the plaque next to the paintings.

Rockwell began his actual art career in the early 20th century, pre-World War I, but the exhibit begins around 1916. Only a few paintings are showcased for this brief era and only a select number are military related: Doughboy and his Admirers showing a returning American soldier surrounded by adoring children, and a magazine page depicting a man wearing a Scottish kilt military uniform and a woman wearing a military uniform with pants. The latter image would be just the first of many American magazine paintings, both humorous and serious, in Rockwell’s career.

His work is displayed by the decade in this exhibit. After the WWI period, there are paintings from 1920-1929, dubbed ‘The Roaring 20’s collection’. These works focus on the softer side of America, such as a napping Santa on the day after Christmas. One sad but sweet painting is of a crying runaway boy, adorable bindle and all, being comforted by a clown and the clown’s dog, also wearing a clown hat. During the Great Depression era (1930-1939), Rockwell decided to keep with his humorous and lighthearted themes, rather than focus on poverty. During this time, he created “Volunteer Fireman,” which also happens to be the cover art for the exhibit itself. Next to that is an advertisement he did for Father’s Day depicting a man spanking his son with his shoe, all apparently because the son gave his father low quality socks. “Socks by Interwoven,” says the advertisement. Rockwell can even make irrational child abuse seem somewhat silly.

"Rockwell's America will be at the Museum of Art through January. MCT Campus

World War II and After covers the 1940’s, and two of his most famous creations of that era, Willie Gillis and the life-brought-to-art Rosie the Riveter, are sadly scarce for this part. Willie Gillis, the young ‘everyman’ soldier, was a reoccurring character in the Saturday Evening Post, and only one of his paintings is present: Cat’s Cradle, which would be on the “no-no” list because of the featured lit cigarettes. Rosie is only seen in the collection of Saturday Evening Post issue covers, in all her muscle bound, rivet-gun, sandwich eating glory. Aside from these two, his work during this war time actually focused more on the home front than the battlefield. The touching “Red Head” illustrates a story of a woman who has recently adopted child, and is embracing a newly adopted redheaded baby boy. Awww.

After crying over that lovely image, you can walk on over to the Fabulous Fifties. This era had a good number of paintings depicting children. While Rockwell had always loved working with children, capturing candid moments of playful activities all through out his career, one work that stands out is “The Day in the Life of a Little Girl.” This was a pretty cute study, but one certain image shows that either children were not as innocent as people thought back then, or Rockwell was just giving us something that would go on to be called “subliminal advertising”. Was Rockwell ahead of his time, or do we just come up with naughty explanations in our perverted year of 2012?
The exhibit winds down with the 1960’s, a sort of departure period for the artist. He had ended his 47 year long business relationship with the Saturday Evening Post and was focusing a lot on depicting the more serious. While he still kept with his children theme, this time they were Russian school children in class, not American children at play. One of his most famous Civil Rights themed paintings is missing in its original form. A sketch of “The Problem We Live With” still shows the young Ruby Bridges (the first African American child to attend an all white school in the South), but instead of four U.S. Deputy Marshall escorts, there are only two. The racial slurs painted in the background are also missing. The original painting had a brief stay in The White House last year, and is currently kept at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts.

Ending the exhibit is a painting and some memorabilia from his seven year stint working with the Coca-Cola Company. From 1928-1935, Rockwell painted six illustrations of people enjoying Coca-Cola, images that would be reproduced to adorn calendars, serving treys, posters, and advertisements. The whereabouts of three of half of these paintings are unknown, so only one original is displayed: “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

Norman Rockwell’s America is an interesting look at the classic artworks from a good chunk of this country’s history. The exhibit runs until January 6 at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Tickets are $15 while student tickets are $8.

Britty Reese
Senior Staff Writer

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