Norman Rockwell Paints the Boy Scouts
Through Jan. 4 at Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Frist Center for the Visual Arts is hosting a show of five original paintings by Americana illustrator Norman Rockwell. The pieces represent Rockwell’s beginnings as an artist in the late 1910s through his work in the mid-1960s, when he started working for Boy’s Life magazine and other publications associated with the Boy Scouts organization. This show comes on the heels of the enormously successful touring exhibit “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People” from 1999-2001, which consisted of 70 works on canvas and more than 300 Saturday Evening Post covers. The show drew record crowds at every location, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, reigniting the debate over illustration as a fine art and its placement in “highbrow” venues. The question of Rockwell’s validity in American art history has been answered at least in the monetary realm, as his pieces have sold for as much as a half a million dollars at recent auctions. His contributions to American culture are now reconsidered in academia as assisting in the visual propaganda campaign after World War II and creating a myth-based “Rockwellian” genre in our social collective history.
“Men of Tomorrow,” from 1948, exemplifies Rockwell’s clarifying statement that his paintings portray “life as I would like it to be,” and it perfectly demonstrates how he uses composition to instigate the nostalgic desire to be something other. In this piece, a young boy in a symbolic blue Cub Scout uniform is slumped over with his head resting in his hands. He is seated in the lower right corner, on a (stylistically) different visual plane at the forefront of the picture, and he is turned to look back into what appears to bea window? a photograph? a framed dream? The higher second plane, above the boy, shows older male children in an adventurous circumstance wearing the official “mature” uniform of the Boy Scouts. The Cub’s body language and his pictorial placementwhich puts him in the same viewing position as the audiencelead us to participate in the supposed daydream of being a part of something greater than our current selves.
Regardless of the criticism of Rockwell’s work (or lack thereof), it does give entry to a larger non-gallery viewing audience through its simplicity of concept. As the Frist show’s title suggests, in “Norman Rockwell Paints the Boy Scouts,” the work is as straightforward as the virtuous messages he depicts, and as patriotically homogenous as his stenciled signature. However universally engaging this simplicity might be, the work is disconcerting in that it boasts an authoritarian tone as the artist does his best to visually teach his (poor wayward) audience the “virtues” of how to be a good citizen. He establishes himself as the country’s moral guardian by illustrating what we should value and appreciate. These lessons are present not only in his images, but are also layered in the titles “A Good Scout” and “A Good Turn.” Of course, the work was originally directed at a juvenile audience, but was equally reinforced by adult magazine editors and parent consumers.
Rockwell’s content is known for being less than controversial, but it does raise some questions in our current war-torn culture, as the Boy Scouts continue to signify America’s passion with the “mini” in creating the ideal miniaturized soldierhybridizing a life-threatening occupation with the commercial charm of childhood to create yet another commodity. These social-cultural concerns aside, Rockwell also offers the contemporary viewer a renewed interest in the narrative. After shedding modernism’s confining search for an objective reality, audiences are now free to investigate ideas of mediated realities and fiction. And Rockwell is, if nothing else, an incredible storyteller through his meticulous attention to detail. He paints such original scenes containing highly characterized elements that they willingly give viewers a believable scenario in which to build their own dialogue. On a technical level, Rockwell is truly a master of the medium, and the show is worth taking a closer look at to appreciate such skill, as opposed to the mass-printed versions through which we have come to know him.
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.