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Jewish World Review April 6, 2000 / 1 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Through the eyes of
Norman Rockwell -- I HAD BEEN COVERING a story that was as mean and depressing as a case can possibly be; every time I reported a new detail, the world seemed dimmer. I was looking for an antidote.

So I went over to the Chicago Historical Society one afternoon, where the exhibition "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" is on display until May 21. For a few hours, things were all right.

Some critics have always shown great disdain for Rockwell, who died in 1978 at the age of 84. They dismiss his paintings--many of which became famous on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post--as portraying too cheerful a view of America, too optimistic an outlook on life.

I'm not certain that is fair. Rockwell knew life--he saw the good and the bad. Knowing what he knew of the world, he made a conscious decision about how to depict it on his canvases. Too optimistic? He had a reason. Here it is, in his own words:

"The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be."

And his eye was a marvel. To wander around the historical society and to look close up at portraits I had seen before only as reduced-in-size magazine covers . . . what a reporter Rockwell was. What a reporter's eye he had. Little things: There is a painting of an old city neighborhood in the years when television was first gaining a foothold in American society. On top of an old building was a TV antenna; it was big, ungainly, new, and what Rockwell had noticed--perhaps what only Rockwell had noticed--was how it mimicked in shape, but overwhelmed in scale, the crosses on old churches in neighborhoods like that. He saw it coming--he saw what TV was going to do to the old ideas of community.

Too optimistic? I am never able to look at Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" without feeling a catch in my throat. It was painted in 1964, after he had left the Post (he was offended that the Post's editors were demanding that he paint more celebrity covers, and thus cut down on his own view of life; the editors of the Post were in the thrall of the very TV culture Rockwell had foreseen). So "The Problem We All Live With" was done not for the Post, but for Look magazine.

In it, a young black schoolgirl, dressed all in white, carrying her book, is on her way to classes. There is hatred on the wall we see behind her--that ugliest of racial epithets is scrawled there.

And--this is Rockwell's genius--what we see in front of the girl and behind her is four large men. We can't see their faces; the top of the painting begins at their shoulders. So we see that they are wearing suits, that they are protecting this small child as they walk with her. We know who they are because we can read their armbands. They are United States marshals--they are the United States government, and they are making sure she can go to school safely.

The details; the details. My favorite Rockwell painting may be "Freedom of Speech," done for the Post in 1943. It shows a man at a town meeting--presumably in New England--standing up to have his say.

Simple, right? But look at it. The man is a laborer--the other men in the painting wear coats and ties, but this man wears worker's clothing. His hands are rough--if you look, you can tell that he makes his living with them. Freedom of speech is not just for the elite; freedom of speech is not just for the privileged. It is no coincidence that this is the man Rockwell chose to portray the freedom to say what is in your heart.

And--I've never known how Rockwell did this--the man's face is a little afraid, a little nervous--but his eyes are full of courage. That is what has always moved me so deeply about the painting--his face, his mouth, tell you that perhaps the man is not accustomed to speaking in public; perhaps coming to this town meeting on this night was a decision that was not so easy to make. Standing up to be heard . . . that can be a difficult thing.

But the eyes! The man's eyes! There is so much in his eyes . . . the eyes are the secret of that painting. Because I had only seen it in small reproductions before, I had never had the chance to look at the eyes from a foot or so away--to look at the eyes as Rockwell had painted them. At the Chicago Historical Society I moved as near to the eyes as I could get. They were so brave--so bright and so brave. I tried to figure out how Rockwell had done it. What technique, exactly, had he used--what had he done with his brush, and with his paint, to get that result? I couldn't tell, for certain--like all wondrous art, the secret lay inside the artist. Those eyes--the eyes in the painting, the eyes of Rockwell. . . .

"I paint life as I would like it to be," he said. The life his eyes beheld.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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