Images from a simpler time

At the Corcoran, Norman Rockwell's `Four Freedoms' inspire a complex chorus of responses

Ideas: Art and Allegiance

May 23, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - For a big dose of patriotism, you'd think an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms would deliver. It has all the elements: wholesome people, noble lives, American idealism in close-up. Here are four paintings that celebrate the freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom of worship that President Franklin D. Roosevelt cited as the country's moral justification for entering World War II.

But what's heard inside this new exhibit at the Corcoran Museum of Art probably wouldn't look so good on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. In May 2004, apparently, there is no freedom from cynicism.

On a random day at the Rockwell show, visitors studied the oversized oil canvases in respectful silence, but when approached, even some in stars-and-stripes T-shirts unleashed a litany of woes about the state of the union.

Here's an abridged list of their objections:

The war with Iraq, the ideas of President Bush, the threat of terrorism, the ideas of Democratic challenger John Kerry, the USA Patriot Act, the rift between the two political parties, the gulf between rich and poor, the predisposition of Americans to file lawsuits, the strains on two-career households, the 24-hour news cycle, the abundance of parking tickets, the risks of being quoted by name in a metropolitan daily newspaper, the isolation created by the Internet, the passing of small-town life, the lack of respect for elders, the prevalence of spin, the loss of innocence and, just for good measure, the skeptics who can't even enjoy a good Norman Rockwell anymore.

Objecting to art's use

One visitor, Gordon Davies, wouldn't even go past the exhibit's first room.

"I walked this far and I realized, I can't do this," said Davies, a 65-year-old Quaker visiting from Richmond, Va., whose set mouth and rock-solid expression you might expect to find on a face in the background of a Rockwell painting. "These ideals are so discredited by our behavior in Iraq and our imperialist foreign policies. We all know Norman Rockwell is kitsch - now it's kitsch in service of an arrogant and disrespectful view of the world."

Supporters of the war effort would argue the conflict in Iraq is meant to protect freedoms like the ones in these paintings, and Rockwell fans would argue that his work captures an essential American optimism- the country the way it would like to be seen. But the political and artistic debates don't matter to those who object to the timing of this show. To them, America's moral high ground isn't unshakable in the way that this art suggests.

"There is no freedom from fear in the world, there is no freedom from want," Davies says while his wife, a fellow Quaker, sits on a faraway bench, conscientiously objecting to a show whose staging she considers jingoistic. "I don't believe our actions are going to free us from the things that Roosevelt tried to help ensure in the world."

Inside the exhibit, which opened last week and runs until September, visitors can see how the artwork galvanized a country at war. Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address blares from a news reel, background music for paintings that, though not commissioned by the U.S. government, certainly worked in its service.

In 1942, Rockwell ran his sketches by the Office of War Information in Washington before showing them to The Saturday Evening Post, which commissioned the work and printed it in 1943. The government used the images to address polls showing a third of Americans still didn't understand why the U.S. entered World War II.

The government used the images to sell war bonds: The U.S. Treasury and The Post co-sponsored a national tour in which Rockwell signed Four Freedoms prints at department stores, reaching 1.2 million viewers and generating $132 million for the military. Cities on the tour competed to see which would sell the most war bonds.

The Office of War Information printed the posters of the paintings - pieces that Rockwell executed over six months using his Vermont neighbors as models. The images were hanging in government buildings and private homes, the artistic embodiment of Roosevelt's commitment to war and, soon, synonymous with the best of the American spirit.

The exhibit's wall text argues that, "More than five decades later, with the U.S. defending its democracy against the threat of global terrorism, Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms are no less inspiring today."

Strength of a free people

The paintings had just such an effect on Ed Hasty, a 66-year-old retired AT&T worker from Spruce Pine, N.C., who said the portraits reminded him there were liberties worth fighting for when it came to the war in Iraq - and, with those greater goals in mind, strong reasons to remain unified at home.

"I don't have any grudges," he said, gazing at Freedom of Speech. "They're doing what they can over there."

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