Funny how you can go along never wondering about something, and then when you’re told how it was done, you slap your forehead in recognition---of course!
That’s what happened when I saw the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
Like many people of my generation, especially Americans, I grew up knowing that Norman Rockwell painted elaborately realistic portraits of people in stereotypical American scenes: two kids at a soda fountain, men in a barbershop. They had an old-timey feel, as if the artist had captured a time somewhat before mine, a time when housewifely women cooked steaks for the hard-working husbands, truck drivers puffed on cigars, little boys consulted with friendly cops while taking a break from running away from home.
Never once did I consider how Rockwell achieved that exquisite level of detail that makes his work so distinctive, and so immediately identifiable.
The moment my palm slapped my forehead was when I went into the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and saw the photographs from which Rockwell worked. Only then did I really understand the thing that marks Rockwell’s paintings as distinctly his own: he wasn’t painting from life, but was painting from photographs. And that is where his genius lay; Rockwell was able to take this relatively new technique of photography and use its a tool for creating a new style of painting.
The exhibit illustrates Rockwell’s method by displaying the original photographs beside the paintings made from them.
In the photographs, we can see how Rockwell labored over creating each scene before the shoot. He was director, set-designer, and sometime prop constructor, but he had photographers doing the actual photography; and so, the show at the Brooklyn Museum is not only an exhibit of Rockwell’s work, but also of the work of his photographers: Gene Pelham, Bill Scovill, and Louie Lamone. The first shot in the show is a delightful, almost whimsical portrait of Rockwell taken by Bill Scovill, which seems to express all of Rockwell’s joy at his work.
And yet, the show opens with an arresting photograph by Rockwell: a full-color, large-format, back-lit shot taken in 1957 for Eastman Kodak, which was displayed at 18 x 60 feet Grand Central Terminal, and was claimed to be the world’s largest color transparency at the time.
The subject of the photo is typical narrative Rockwell: a 1950s family closing up a summer cottage. The back-lighting makes the colors appear saturated, the glint of late-summer sun on the red boat strapped to the woody’s roof taking the focus of both the camera and the viewer’s eye. There is so much going on in this one photo that it’s hard to look away.
By revealing the behind-the-scenes production, the exhibit shows the viewer that the narrative aspect of Rockwell’s work is anything but coincidental. For The Runway, one of Rockwell’s most iconic paintings, there are 12 shots, some without the counterman, some with the cop wearing his jacket. It’s clear that Rockwell couldn’t have tried out so many variations if he hadn’t worked with photography---even a series of sketches wouldn’t have afforded him the same flexibility along with realistic detail.
Although Rockwell was what we would now call an “early adopter” of technology, his relationship with the advances of his time wasn’t always easy. He used a Balopticon Projector, similar to today’s opaque projector, but he said it was “an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy, and vicious machine,” adding, however, that it was “useful, time-saving, practical, and helpful.
“I use one often—and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming,” he said.
Rockwell was similarly disdainful of the very photography that allowed him to do his unique work, calling it “cheating, a dishonorable crutch for lazy draftsmen, a betrayal of artistic principles.”
And yet, it allowed him to create the paintings that best expressed his artistic ability. By using black and white photographs, Rockwell was able to concentrate on developing his own distinctive color palette, and to bring expressive life to his characters, earning him the moniker, “The Kid With The Camera Eye.”
The exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum shows us the man behind the curtain; the mechanics of creating the paintings. For example, in the photos used for Day in the Life of a Little Girl, we see the hands of assistants holding the young model’s braids back, as if the wind is blowing them, to add to the effect of motion in the final painting. When a character is to be painted walking, the model in the photograph will be standing on a short stacks of books so that he’ll have the posture of stepping.
By looking at the photographs next to the paintings, we can see Rockwell’s talent for exaggeration as well as his process, such as in “The Gossips,” “Dewey or Truman,” and “Soda Jerk.” In “Soda Jerk,” for example, the models look more like regular teens, whereas in the painting the qualities that make them teens are clearly exaggerated.
The Norman Rockwell exhibit illustrates not only the work of a beloved American painter, but also shows us how curiosity and a willingness to try new methods can result in the ability to find one's own truest expression---and that's something well worth exploring.
Norman Rockwell, Behind the Camera is on view until April 10, 2011