Monday, February 4, 2008

Standing Up for Freedom

Thanks to the homey glow beaming from so many of his works, Norman Rockwell suffers from the reputation of being old-fashioned and out of touch with the events going on around him. Born February 5, 1894, Rockwell once held the undisputed title of artist most likely to appear on the wall of Americans who “didn’t like art.” (Thomas Kinkade most likely holds the title today.) Behind the folksy exterior, however, Rockwell firmly believed in the ideals of America and expressed them in his art. Freedom of Speech (above, from 1943) belongs to a suite of four paintings he created that are collectively known as The Four Freedoms. Inspired by a speech given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rockwell wanted to embody those ideals in the faces of the simple people of America, such as the man rising to speak at the town meeting in Freedom of Speech. When fascism threatened to destroy those freedoms, a threat that was still quite real in 1943 during the midst of World War II , Rockwell himself stood up and spoke his mind through such inspirational images.

Time did not soften Rockwell’s stance on freedom and civil rights. Twenty years later, Rockwell watched the protests against integrated schools in the Southern part of America and painted The Problem We All Live With (above, from 1964). The sight of the fragile young black girl clutching her book while surrounded by her protectors on the way to school poignantly demonstrates the cruelty of denying equal education to such children. The tomato resting on the ground, thrown by a protester, only hints at the escalating violence that surrounded the exercise of basic civil rights at that time. I always laugh at those who dismiss Rockwell as “just” an illustrator and wish they could discover his courageous political side.

I grew up with Norman Rockwell in many ways. My family doctor displayed a print of Rockwell’s painting in which a little girl holds up her doll for the doctor to listen to with his stethoscope. I remember quite often waiting on his examination table and looking at that print. Rockwell holds a special place in my heart for his many baseball pictures as well, especially Bottom of the Sixth (above, from 1949). When I was young, I collected autographs of active and retired baseball players using a book that actually listed their home addresses. This book even had addresses for old umpires, including the umpire depicted in the center of Rockwell’s painting, “Beans” Reardon. So, I have a small reproduction of Bottom of the Sixth signed by good old “Beans” right there on the chest protector. I’m sure it wouldn’t get much on Antique Road Show, but I still cherish it today.

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