Friday, December 28, 2012

a Norman Rockwell original

I'd once seen an original painting by Norman Rockwell, and irrespective of my opinions of its subject matter, I was astonished at the sheer beauty of its mere draughtsmanship. No reproduction, including this one, captures the sheer elegance and control of detail, as well as the shaping and effectiveness of the whole.

At that point I forget anything I'd once been inculcated with about Norman Rockwell, ignorable corny Americanist, and began to respect him as a great artist.

Consequently I was a willing target for a suggestion to visit the huge Rockwell exhibition currently going on at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Thither B. and my mother and I went yesterday. It doesn't have that Nixon portrait (that's in the presidents file of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.), but it does have an enormous selection of famous and obscure work from the Rockwell gallery in Massachusetts. And it's on for another month, so there's still a chance for locals to see it.

But, despite that awesome draughtsmanship well exhibited, the most astonishing thing in the hall is a set of printed reproductions: a corridor lined with framed original copies of every single one of the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell painted, usually 5 or 10 of them a year for over 45 years. They're not all corny; some of them are weird or surreal or self-referential or just cheeky.

What the original paintings make clear is, first, how much care and detail Rockwell packed in - his triple self-portrait, for instance, is over 3 feet high, but the Post printed it at about 1/6th of its full size - and, second, that the corniness was, at least in part, his editors' doing, not his own, because, once freed from the Post's puritan content restrictions, he began creating openly and powerfully political art, like "The Problem We All Live With" and "Christmas Eve in Bethlehem."

Of the works I hadn't seen before, this Post cover was the most striking. As with others, it's less forceful in reproduction. It shows a girl, apparently just pre-adolescent, her doll tossed to the side, trying on lipstick, presumably for the first time, and comparing her visage in a mirror to that of a woman's glamor photo held in her lap.

And it occurred to me that this is Susan Pevensie at the moment that she loses Narnia.

Nothing in C.S. Lewis studies has been more unnecessarily roiling than the so-called "Problem of Susan", because nothing he wrote has been more persistently misunderstood. (Here are a couple of clear-minded explanations.) This painting, showing a girl in the same situation as Susan, might help clear it up. This girl isn't interested in sex. She's trying to be Grown-Up, in capital letters, and trying it out, perhaps before her time, rather than letting true adulthood grow naturally into her. And, it seemed to me on looking at the original painting, she is doing this less because she really wants to than because she feels obliged to. This is What Women Do, and, if she is to be a woman, she'd better do it. That gives it a poignancy of loss of childhood, represented by the undignified position of the doll, which may be absent from Lewis's tone.

Remember, too, if you're minded to query the girl's sense of the obligations of womanhood, that this is 1954 - just as the Narnian books were being published - with all of the cultural baggage of that period in Anglo-American middle-class life. Which brings me to my last point about Rockwell: how well and vividly he illustrated the culture he belonged to. Much of Rockwell's interest was in childhood. My mother's childhood was in the middle of the Rockwell era, in a fairly Rockwellish environment, and she exclaimed at his ability to capture detail in such matters as the clothes. Look at her scuffed shoes, she said. That's what saddle shoes really looked like, and you won't see that in photos, which would be neatly posed wearing new ones. Corniness is not just corny: in Rockwell, it's the truth.

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