Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Norman Rockwell

As we learnt in our short trip to Nasher Museum, being an artist meant something different in the 15th century compared to modern times. For a long time art was considered rather a handicraft until it gained the status as a subjective means of expressing yourself and make sense of the world today. It is interesting to see, though, how artists at different times were dealing with art in both senses. My choice of artist is the perfect example for that: Norman Rockwell. Mostly working as an illustrator on jobs commissioned by magazines but also as an illustrator for books, and in advertising, he brought his own photorealistic style and working method to perfection.

With having all his subject matter inspired by the life of American people, Norman Rockwell can be seen as a truly American artist. This focus developed as early as he started drawing. Being born in 1894 in New York City to a family that included several talented artists, among them his maternal grandfather Thomas Hill, he switched high school for attending an art school at the age of fourteen. There, he started his career illustrating boy scouts magazines and a few books, and successfully presented his works to the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, who from then frequented him for designing covers and illustrating stories. This employment was directory for his future development as an artist. In this job, he could refine his techniques on depicting his favorite subject matter, the actions and emotions of common American people. His ambition and sympathy toward this interest was so strong that he moved to the Arlington, Vermont, where he became part of the small town community.

The life in the community, then, served as his major inspiration, and the town people as his source for models. His working method was highly systematic, which might be out of necessity due to working under the pressure of deadlines. As an example, he outlines his methods in steps that he follows rigorously to create a cover for The Saturday Evening Post: First of all he has to come up with an idea, and he does so in being very aware of the life that is happening around him, sometimes travels for inspiration. Then, when he has a concrete idea his actual work begins, he sketches them and gets them okayed by the art editors. After selecting models, mostly neighbors, he gathers props that he needs for setting up the scene and dressing people. He has a big collection of objects that he uses in his pictures, and old clothes that his models have to wear for posing. When everything is staged the way he wants to and the models are instructed on the role they play, he sketches and directs a photographer to take pictures of the scene, which will later help him to construct his scenes. He, though, emphasizes that it is important not to rely too heavily on photographs since unskilled use can make the pictures that arise from them look too inanimate. On the other hand, he sees a lot of advantages in them, for example the possibility of recording a pose from an angle you would not be able to draw from normally. His gathering of sketches and photographs finally allow him to try a whole variety of compositions. He makes small studies in pencil, then draws a full size charcoal layout which he fixates, and then takes photographs of them for color studies that he directly paints on it. When he is all prepared, he copies the layout onto a prepared canvas, mixes colors and finishes his painting. His way of describing his process in detail shows his pedantic approach. However, his creative setting up of the scene is highly inspirational and playful, and also reminded me of a modern version of what the artists of the 15th century did when they created their paintings from staged scenes, only that they could not use photography.

I like Rockwell’s photorealistic style. Even if his subject matter is often perceived as one-sided and even a little propagandistic, his craft is incredible. He himself said, “I guess I am a storyteller and although this may not be the highest form of art it is what I love to do.” This story-telling aspect in his documentary approach to art is what caught me, and his method to achieve it made him create images of a strong quality. His images have richness in atmosphere and deal directly with relations of people; they are carefully constructed and every detail is set with a whole-heartedness that saturates the eye. This seems created through the equal focus on every aspect of the picture, which furthermore embraces an American vision: the democratic ideal. However, to me, his images not simply represent an uncritical view on American life of the middle of the 20th century. They also have a strange quality about them - something surreal - that disturbs a placid viewing experience and makes them interesting to read. 

Finch, Christopher. Norman Rockwell's America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975. Print.
Guptill, Arthur L. Norman Rockwell Illustrator. New York: Watson-Gutpill Publications, Inc., 1946. Print.

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