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 embarassment 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.
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 Norman Rockwell world of burning leaves on a Saturday morning. All the things that were in Rockwell paintings were part of my life.”
Similar sentiments are shared by Spielberg, also interviewed for the exhibition. He was enough of an enthusiast to restage Rockwell’s 1943 work “Freedom from Fear,” in which two children are tucked into bed by their parents, their father holding a newspaper with bad news about the war, for an early scene in his 1987 film “Empire of the Sun.”
He marvels that Rockwell “did his storytelling in a flash; he did it in a single image.”
“He draws you into that image and he invites you, once it makes an impression on you, to question why, simply question why. And as you answer your own question, there are clues throughout all of his paintings.”