19 December 2010

Norman Rockwell as high art

Reviewer Brian Sewell on Norman Rockwell's America, an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery:

In overwhelming self-esteem, Rockwell evidently agreed with the verdict of the immaculately dishevelled, widely smiling, cap-toothed examples of American dentistry who are the authors of Norman Rockwell’s America, the book-cum-catalogue of the current exhibition of his work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. They have it that he was and is “America’s pre-eminent artist-illustrator, perhaps our greatest storyteller, and the world’s most beloved illustrator”. That is one hell of a triple claim. There may well be some truth in the first part, substantiated by his 322 covers for the Post between 1916 and 1963 (almost half a century of a style and vision that underwent no fundamental change) in decades when magazines had far greater penetration and circulation than now. At the storyteller claim, however, I am inclined to toss the names of Fenimore Cooper and his Natty Bumppo, Poe, Stowe, Hawthorne and Twain, who told so many of my childhood stories and Henry James, Edith Wharton and the innumerable hacks of detective and pulp fiction who followed them, for no painted picture tells a story better than a scribbler’s prose. As for Rockwell’s being best beloved of the whole world — this is arrogant piffle, ignorant balderdash, flapdoodle, hokum, bunkum and horsefeathers.

On what purports to be a serious catalogue, the authors impose a repellent Reader’s Digest style and a text of pure puerility, to which the cynic must respond that this is precisely the aesthetic and intellectual level of exegesis that Rockwell merits and that anything more perceptive would be a mismatch with the homespun, cracker-barrel, neighbourly folk to whom his work was pitched.

The hokum and horsefeathers are, alas, infectious: here and there in this wretched text are signed interpolations by the eximious director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery himself, snippets of schoolboy art history declaring, for example, that in The Runaway and Young Valetudinarian, he perceives something of European Old Mastery, Rockwell sharing the aims that Rembrandt pursued with such authority in the last years of his life. Not content with diminishing Rembrandt in this comparison, he does the same for Dou and Van Dyck, tempting ridicule and derision by reproducing their paintings on the same page as, in these two cases, Rockwell’s absent canvases — 25 included in the catalogue are not hanging on the walls.

Elsewhere, in a “Statement” (how pretentious), the director gushes his enthusiasm for Rockwell. Citing his Rockwell “epiphany” at an exhibition in America, he affirms the painter’s greatness, his special skills, his truths greater than reality, his marvellous realism, his visual jokes and whimsical insights, hauls in a comparison with Ostade, hints at a connection with Vermeer, and asks who among us would not want to live in America as Rockwell saw it? He even demands that those of us who do not share this fatuous view should “lighten up” — to which my command of the American vernacular provides no polite printable retort. I observe, in passing, that Vermeer painted a brothel scene and that Ostade was much given to images of peasants drunk, vomiting, emptying their bladders and putting their hands up skirts; we find none of this in Rockwell’s work, in which even the dogs are decorous, never emptying their bowels as 17th-century Dutch dogs so often did in churches.

- Evening Standard, 16 December 2010

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