Giving Norman His Due

There’s something about Norman Rockwell’s "Triple Self Portrait," which appeared on the February 13, 1960 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, that imbeds itself instantly in your brain chemistry if you’ve got a certain mix of cartooning and illustrating genes in your DNA. Its humor, elegance of composition, and absence of pretension (note the spectacles adorning the face in the mirror that are being omitted from the "real" portrait on the canvas) makes you want to be Norman Rockwell yourself, just so you can stand back while the oils are still wet, admire your own deftness, and feel good about having just painted a classic.

While admiration for a job well done is appropriate, the cartoonists among us will inevitably be tempted to do our own inelegant riff on the painting should an opportunity present itself — as exemplified by Laura Weinstein‘s promotional graphic (at right above) for Lit Graphic: The World of the Graphic Novel, the exhibition of comics art that opened on November 10 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

I, too, have paid oblique tribute to Rockwell’s image in my work, as you know if you’ve ever read "My Life As a TV Pundit", my 1999 satire of celebrity punditry that appeared in the short-lived magazine Harpoon. Rockwell, of course, was not so tasteless as to depict himself unshaven and painting in his underwear. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
Anyway, I’m delighted to have some of my Stuck Rubber Baby pages included in the Lit Graphic show alongside work by a raft of other comics creators whose skills I admire. (For the full roster follow my links to the museum’s web site.) I even got some nice press in the bargain in the form of an interview by Michael Scott Leonard that occupied a full spread in the November 15 issue of the Berkshire Eagle’s Berkshires Week supplement.
And I’m especially pleased that the show is being mounted at the Rockwell Museum. There was a lot of snobbery in the air for years about the merits of Rockwell’s oeuvre among a lofty branch of art criticism that enjoys being parsimonious with the term art. Official dogma in those circles held that true art began and ended with abstract expressionism…until it began beginning-and-ending with pop art, then op art, then whatever other subsequent categories came along.

To be fair, snobbery hasn’t always been the culprit. Sometimes it’s just been habits of thought. Various of my perfectly open-minded art-loving friends acknowledge that they’ve never felt called upon to give much thought to Rockwell, thus allowing the widespread condescension toward the man’s accomplishments to go unexamined in their minds. One can’t keep up with everything, after all, and the need to worry about George W. Bush’s presidency has more urgency, perhaps, than any need to reevaluate the artistic legacy of a popular illustrator who, it must be said, never suffered from disdain among everyday folks.

Maybe I’ve got a personal agenda at play here. As the target of much (to my mind undeserved) condescension during my Barefootz years, I’ve always felt an affinity for the underrated Norman Rockwell. We schoolyard outcasts have to stick together.

Fortunately, time seems to be rendering a fairer verdict about Rockwell than have some art critics in the past. Decide for yourself. For sheer pleasure in looking at richly imagined pictures that have interesting stories to tell, the Rockwell Museum is the place to beat. And the Museum is assembling a big Rockwell exhibition that’ll soon be touring around the country as well, so original Rockwell paintings may not be as out of reach as you think, even for people who can’t make the drive to western Massachusetts.

I view the man as a master visual storyteller who knew how to portray characters that made ordinariness fascinating. Cynics may bristle at the unabashed "neighborliness" of those images and personalities made famous in the course of the artist’s long partnership with the SatEvePost, but those of us who like telling stories with pictures and aspire to do it well know when we’re seeing a fellow cartoonist in action.

Even if Rockwell’s stories were told on canvases instead of comic book pages, the man was clearly playing in our ballpark.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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0 Responses to Giving Norman His Due

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  3. John R. Benson says:

    Well, Howard, Mr. Rockwell is starting to become almost respectable in the HIGH art world, the Detroit Institute of Arts will be hosting a show of his work in 2010, an event the director acknowleges would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. John

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