Spielberg and Lucas Give D.C. a Dose of the Reel Rockwell

COVER_Hollywood_1 Norman Rockwell is said to have once remarked, “If I hadn’t become a
painter, I would have liked to become a movie director.”

Professionally
and personally he embraced Hollywood, its dazzle and disappointment,
but it was in his ability to tell quintessentially idealized American
stories in a single image that resembled the filmmakers’ craft, a point
that is reinforced in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit
“Telling Stories,” opening July 2 in Washington.

The exhibition
not only explores Rockwell’s connections to the movies but to two
“kindred spirits” in his legacy, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The
exhibition features 57 major Rockwell works held by the two filmmakers,
who are among the most significant collectors of the artist’s paintings,
drawings and sketches.Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the
Smithsonian, says an impressive aspect of their collections is that they
cover the span of Rockwell’s career, from his early days at the
Saturday Evening Post in the shadow of World War I to the social tumult
of the 1960s and ’70s.

Spielberg, for instance, owns “Pardon Me,” a
1918 Post cover in which a boy expresses embarrassment over standing on
his dance partner’s foot, while Lucas has the companion 1921 “The
Wishbone,” featuring a mismatched young couple tearing apart a chicken
bone.

Lucas has the pencil drawing of “Happy Birthday Miss Jones”
(1956), in which a teacher smiles at her roomful of students, while
Spielberg has the oil painting.

HighDive What’s instantly apparent is the
extent to which many of the works on display seem so familiar, if not
because the paintings themselves are so iconic but because their content
evokes a sense of comfort, even those that reflect the troubles of the
time.

Among them is “Back to Civvies” (1945), from Spielberg’s
collection, in which Rockwell depicts a World War II pilot, having
returned home to his old bedroom, peering into a mirror and marveling at
his ill-fitting clothes. So much of the man’s life is told merely from
the items on his dresser.

Hanging in Spielberg’s office is “Boy on
High Dive” (1947), in which a young boy peers over the end of a high
dive, his eyes bulging in fear of the 20-foot plunge. Spielberg has said
the painting “represents every motion picture just before I commit to
directing it — just that one moment, before I say ‘Yes, I’m going to
direct that movie.’ “

Rockwell, who died in 1978, was in the
twilight of his career as Spielberg and Lucas were just starting theirs.
But each grew up as enthusiasts of the artists’ work.

In a 2008
interview conducted by Mecklenburg and Laurent Bouzereau for the
exhibition, Lucas says Rockwell was “probably a very big reason that I
felt so comfortable when I got into the movie business.”

“He
showed us an idealized version of life, of what he wanted it to be or
what he thought it to be,” Lucas says. “I did that in ‘American
Graffiti.’ I came from a small town in central California and grew up in
the

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