Are you sitting down? It is now officially hip to like Norman Rockwell. So says Laura Claridge in her new critical biography of small-town America’s favorite artist, and she appears to be right on the money. The first full-scale retrospective of Rockewell's work in three decades is currently making the rounds of major museums, winding up this November at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, the Taj Mahal of establishment-sanctioned art-world trendiness. What’s more, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, the handsome book that serves as the catalog of the show, is graced with essays in which such impeccably OK critics and curators as Dave Hickey and Robert Rosenblum compare the painter of "Saying Grace" to William Hogarth, Piet Mondrian, Cy Twombly and Jan Vermeer. This is Norman Rockwell we’re talking about, the pipe-smoking magazine illustrator whose Saturday Evening Post covers and Boy Scout calendars remain to this day universally recognized icons of all-American wholesomeness.
You can't make a saint without a hagiography, and Norman Rockwell is nothing if not admiring, albeit in the newfangled intellectual way rather than the old-fashioned middlebrow way. Starting with her very first sentence, "Norman Rockwell was not sadistic," Claridge goes in for high-voltage psychobiography, and she also falls victim on occasion to the chummy, cloying look-at-me confessionalism so beloved of cultural-studies wonks: "To my surprise and chagrin, I ended up falling half in love with my subject—and then dumping him in disgust the next day."
The good news is that once you scrape away the frosting of fashionable silliness with which this book isencrusted, you will find a solid piece of storytelling, full of facts and written in plain English, not the semiliterate jargon academic art historians love. Moreover, the story turns out to be quite unexpectedly involving, for the poet laureate of the old swimming hole turns out, like most artists, to have led an excruciatingly painful life. Among other things, his first wife insisted on an open marriage, left him for a handsomer man, then drowned herself in the bathtub, while wife number two, a depressive alcoholic, was so regular a visitor to mental institutions that the family finally moved within walking distance of one.
As for Rockwell himself, he longed desperately for the respect the critics of his own day declined to grant him. "Just once," he ruefully confessed to his youngest son, "I’d like for someone to tell me that they think Picasso is good, and that I am, too." Twenty-three years after his death, he has gotten his wish, though one suspects he would have seen through the hyperbolic praise of his latter-day admirers and winced at their poorly hidden agendas. It speaks volumes that Andy Warhol, the wizard of camp, claimed to be a Rockwell fan.
The greatest irony of all, of course, is that at his occasional best, Rockwell really was worthy of comparison to the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century, such as Pieter de Hooch, whose work he admired and emulated. In such poignantly understated Post covers as "Shuffleton’s Barbershop" (1950) and "Breaking Home Ties" (1954), Rockwell managed to shake off the easy, jokey charm of his better-known canvases and cut straight to the heart of the matter. Though Claridge is not an art critic by training (she used to be a professor of English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy), she recognizes that these Rockwells are the real right thing and puts their considerable virtues in intelligent perspective. "Finally," she says of "Shuffleton’s Barbershop," "he had created a powerful painting whose impact lies in the details that overwhelm in exactly the right way, in their potency. The inevitable final moment in which Rockwell compulsively adds the overkill to most of his paintings, pushing the portrait into caricature partly to avoid being judged as a serious artist, never occurred in this painting."
That gives the game away. At first glance, Claridge appears to buy into the postmodern argument that Rockwell was good precisely because he wasn't serious. "Earnest art critics," she writes, "eager to determine a respectable way to include him anew in the art histories of the twentieth century, find themselves mesmerized by the prospect of wedding popular to postmodern: perhaps Norman Rockwell's decades of sentimental, narrative painting prophesied the postmodern brilliance of marrying high and low culture; maybe Rockwell was pomo in spite of himself." Whether or not she wants to admit it, though, Claridge clearly knows just how good Rockwell was—and wasn’t—and that knowledge is what makes her book worth reading. To be sure, it would have been better if she had spent more time talking about Rockwell the sometimes-compelling artist and less time rhapsodizing over the "hip, intellectually engaged graduate school scholars" whose praise of Rockwell says more about them than about him. But for all its undeniable weaknesses, Norman Rockwell, like its subject, deserves to be taken seriously.
Claridge (Romantic Potency: The Paradox of Desire) is a former English professor at Annapolis now writing books on "British romanticism, Modernism, gender, and psychoanalytic theory," according to the publisher's bio. This unusual mix is ill-suited to approaching America's most beloved Saturday Evening Post cover illustrator. From the start, an oblique, brusque writing style fails to spell things out: "Norman Rockwell was not sadistic. He was, however, expert at creating desire, both in his public and in his private life." Chapters like "Urban Tensions, Pastoral Relief" are rife with two-ton sentences, like "Major life changes seemed consistently in Rockwell's purview during this period, including the professional leadership he took for granted," or "In 1935, Rockwell was offered a prestigious commission that reminded him of the historical antecedents that had motivated his love of illustration." Readers are given much detail about each of Rockwell's homes, without any sense of why this information might be useful or revealing. And readers learn that, in 1978, not only did Rockwell die, but "Margaret Mead, Hubert Humphrey, Golda Meir, and Charlie McCarthy" also bit the dust. With an undiscerning and unhelpful bibliography, this book nevertheless scorns reputable art critics like John Canaday, who is compared to "an arrogant graduate student." Yet the author unaccountably praises Rockwell's typically heavy-handed portrait of tolerance that shows "a Jewish man being shaved by a New England Protestant barber, while a black man and a Roman Catholic priest waited their turn." Rockwell's millions of fans and other readers are better off with previous illustrated coffee-table tomes, while thosewho need convincing will not be won over by minutiae about the artist's senility and other lackluster details in this misbegotten project. 16 pages b&w and color photos. (Oct. 16) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.