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Rockwell retrospective celebrates painter who captured idyllic side of American life

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Was Norman Rockwell "the Dickens of the paintbrush" -- a brilliant visual storyteller who helped to shape 20th-century America with his optimistic vision of tolerance and decency?

Or was he a too-commercial, too-literal purveyor of corny, sentimental kitsch?

Manitobans can assess the 65-year career of America's best-loved artist for themselves as a blockbuster solo exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, opens Friday at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and runs to May 20.

This is the first time a major retrospective of Rockwell's paintings has ever been shown in Canada. Winnipeg is the only Canadian stop for the touring show, which comes from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the town where Rockwell (1894-1978) spent the final 25 years of his life.

The WAG admission price includes an $8 surcharge beyond regular admission. The price includes a choice of two audio guides: a 46-minute one targeted to adults, narrated by Rockwell's son Peter, or a 26-minute guide suitable for children.

Besides artworks, the in-depth show features a 12-minute video about the pipe-smoking legend's life, including photos of him in his studio and a number of meticulously composed photos that he used to prepare for his paintings, staged with models that include himself and his sons.

The WAG has marketed the show in Northwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan and North Dakota, and has done unprecedented outreach to Winnipeg schools.

Gallery director Stephen Borys says he hopes to draw 25,000 visitors. That would make the show the best-attended WAG presentation ever. In 2007, 24,000 people took in the Andy Warhol show.

By comparison, about 15,500 viewed a Marilyn-Monroe-themed show three years ago, and a Fernando Botero show drew just 7,000 two years ago.

The Rockwell show includes more than 40 paintings, some of which reached millions as Saturday Evening Post or Boys' Life magazine covers.

It also displays a complete set of all 323 covers created for the Saturday Evening Post by the prolific illustrator. Arranged by decade from the 1910s to the 1960s, the covers span 47 years. They had an enormous influence on American culture.

"Rockwell is one of the most powerful image-makers of the 20th century," says Borys. He had to work under constraints, Borys notes, such as the Post's long-standing policy that he could only depict African-Americans in service-industry roles.

Many of the Post covers are charming vignettes in which white Americans of all ages -- often accompanied by their dogs -- play games or musical instruments, work, gossip, go on dates and enjoy the pleasures of home and small-town community.

Rockwell himself said, "I paint life as I would like it to be."

The show includes his famous 1943 Four Freedoms posters, illustrating liberties threatened in wartime: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

On the wall opposite those idealistic images, there's a section devoted to Rockwell's process as he developed one of his controversial later works, Murder in Mississippi. It was created in 1965, when Rockwell was working for Look magazine and began to address civil-rights issues.

The most acclaimed painting of the Look years, The Problem We All Live With, has been on display in the White House, Borys says. U.S. President Barack Obama borrowed the 1963 work for a 2011 event honouring the still-living Ruby Bridges, who is shown as a six-year-old being escorted by guards into a desegregated school.

Born in New York City -- not in a small town, as many assume -- the workaholic Rockwell was married three times and didn't have an idyllic life.


It's generally accepted that he was a painter of great skill, with a brilliance for composition and for revealing moments of human interaction. But he stuck to his narrative style while the art world moved through abstract expressionism, minimalism, surrealism, pop art and other movements. During his lifetime, he was dismissed by serious critics and labelled an illustrator rather than an artist, which didn't bother him.

The debate about his greatness still rages. As Borys asks, "Was his downfall that he was very successful? He's an easy target because of his popularity."

In 2001, New York's Guggenheim Museum presented a major Rockwell retrospective. In 2009, Vanity Fair published a substantial appreciation of Rockwell, suggesting that the critical tide had turned in his favour.

As recently as 2010, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik slammed Rockwell and his "docile realism." "He doesn't challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes," Gopnik wrote.

That prompted right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh to retort, "If you hate Norman Rockwell, you hate the flag. If you hate Norman Rockwell, you hate biscuits and gravy.... If you hate Norman Rockwell, you hate the family."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2012 D1

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