Rockwell let America glimpse its best moments

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 10, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- The new Norman Rockwell Museum opened here in the spring, and everybody couldn't wait to get in. Who's everybody? Mostly low-brow types like me, who don't understand any of those swell Salvador Dali paintings by Picasso but find something stirred in our souls by Rockwell's vision of America.

Only it wasn't precisely America he gave us, was it? It was more like America as we wanted it to be, or as we think we used to see the country when we saw it in its grandest little moments: the jug-eared soldier home from the war, with his folks out to greet him and their hearts all bursting; the beefy cop buying a soda for a runaway kid before he escorts him safely back home; the adolescent girl gazing wistfully into the mirror while she waits for her maturity to arrive any day now.

A Norman Rockwell painting is like a Frank Capra movie set to canvas. You know you're being manipulated, you can spot all the strings he's pulling, but you go along for the ride because it makes you feel so gushy inside.

For a long time, maybe, America hasn't felt so gushy about itself. In Rockwell's heyday, when he was doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, the whole country was a kind of collective Gold Medal Kid. We fought a war and saved the world. Our cities were still called melting pots. Our small towns hark back to the frontier ethic. Our families were all intact.

Or so we liked to tell ourselves. Was it true? Well, it didn't exactly matter. The ones like Rockwell and Capra, the cornball geniuses always dismissed by the sophisticated set, gave us a self-portrait to embrace, a common emotional currency. Everybody paid attention, and everybody thus knew who we wanted to be.

Today, visitors come here not merely to look at old paintings, but to remind ourselves of that fading vision, to wallow in our previous innocence. We're a more cynical crowd than we used to be, always suspecting somebody's trying to pick our pocket. It's our defense mechanism in a frenzied, greedy time.

But we lose something in the process, which is our image of ourselves. With our hands up in front of our faces, the better to keep any jabs from hitting us, we can't see that face in the mirror any more, which once used to delight us.

And we miss that face. In Rockwell's career, spanning 47 years until his death in 1978 at age 84, he did 321 Saturday Evening Post covers and 158 more inside illustrations, back when weekly magazines still counted for a lot in this country.

He captured us in our little moments, when nobody was supposed to be looking. That's why we felt so good about what we saw: He caught us being good when we didn't have to be.

He caught the old lady and her grandson saying grace in a diner and ignoring the two disbelieving toughs across the table. He got the blue collar guy standing up in a town meeting, still in his clothes from the garage, and talking common sense to the older coat-and-tie types around him. And he got the American soldier feeding the little girl orphaned by war, back when Americans never imagined a place like Vietnam, or a village called My Lai.

Was it sentimental? Yes, of course. Was it corny? Guilty again. But he gave us a picture of ourselves that we're hungry to have back again. It wasn't a call to greatness exactly, so much as a call to great ordinariness. There was nobility in our routineness, he was saying, and for a long time, we lapped it up.

On one wall of the new museum here, there's an old remark of Rockwell's: "Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed."

". . .who might not have noticed . . . !"

And yet it's so much tougher to notice today. The world moves far more swiftly than it did in Rockwell's time, and sometimes more cruelly, and we're more constantly barraged by media bringing us the moment's bad news.

You walk around the Rockwell Museum today and see flashes of modern familiarity: Yes, you think, this kind of stuff still happens here. The small pieces of greatness, the routine nobility, are still alive. But we don't stop to notice much any more.

It's nice to come to this little place and find reflections of a time when America not only was a great nation, but we still thought of ourselves as a great people.

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