Norman Rockwell and Disavowal
My opinion of Norman Rockwell, until very recently, has been a mixed one. I have always appreciated his amazing ability for visual storytelling and his exceptional talents as an illustrator- particularly the subtle ways in which he stylizes his figures to achieve the maximum nostalgic appeal. On the other hand, his art is one that I often find too accessible. Anyone can understand a Rockwell painting, which is the great predicament of his work. No one was better in making art for the masses, but its commercial nature detaches it from the level of “high art”, or at least that has been the case. At times, I have often felt put off by the sentimental and kitschy nature of his paintings, even while simultaneously admiring his technical achievements.
It came then as a both a great compliment and a frustration to find Rockwell’s name come up so often in connection with my work. In using 50s reference images and balancing the borderline of nostalgia, his works are understandably unavoidable. Five months ago I reluctantly wrote a paper on Norman Rockwell to appease the constant comparisons. It was a frustrating exercise in that every book I looked at reinforced the opinion that Rockwell’s paintings speak only at the shallow nostalgic level. Looking at his paintings left me with a strong desire to purge narrative from my work completely. It was only after writing that paper that I was referred to a controversial new book and current swell of new appreciation for Rockwell that’s gaining momentum today.
Since he remains so essential to the work I’m trying to do, I’ve decided to give Rockwell another chance by looking deeper into who he was and what he means to my work. In his book “The Underside of Innocence”, author Richard Halpern discusses the innocence found in the works of Norman Rockwell as an act of “disavowal”. He borrows the term from Freud, who in his writings on psychoanalysis wrote that disavowal is one of several ways of suppressing something unbearable. In Freudian terms, disavowal is different than repression or denial, or simply banishing unwanted knowledge all together. To disavow something is to simultaneously know and not know something. It involves a splitting of the self. For Halpern, this is the way to approach the works of Norman Rockwell. “Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not the innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing” (Halpern 6).
It goes without saying that this new theory of Rockwell is controversial. Rockwell’s middlebrow admirers have always loved his work in part because it looks wistfully toward the past. It both partakes of and contributes to the myth that the world was a simpler, happier place than now. Rockwell was obviously intentional in doing this, but he was also much more clever than we give him credit for, and his work is filled with nuances that are easily looked over.
A great example of Rockwell’s deliberate trickery is “The Art Critic” from 1955. In the painting, a young art student in an art museum holds an easel and paints as he leans forward to investigate a painting of a baroque woman, who humorously leers back at him with a raised eyebrow and strange grin. It’s a painting that anyone would find funny for the way the painting interacts with the art student. The picture takes on a completely new meaning when it’s discovered that the boy in the picture is Rockwell’s son Jarvis, and the woman is Rockwell’s wife Mary. In short, the entire painting is an Oedipal joke- one that his family found embarrassing.
In the painting, the young art student gazes through the magnifying glass at a broach on the bosom of the woman, the same broach the mythological Oedipus used to gouge his eyes out upon learning of his despicable actions. A group of men in the painting on the adjacent wall smirk at him in disgust. Through it all, the art student is unfazed, completely unaware of what he is doing. Jarvis Rockwell later recalled, “My father made it very plain that the sexual joke was important to the painting” (Halpern 86). It’s clear from Rockwell’s writings and the work itself that he delighted in playing jokes and in hiding things in plain sight, especially on the magazine covers read by millions. Not all of Rockwell’s jokes are sexual. Uncertain of his place in the art world, Rockwell often makes distinct references to traditional themes in the history of art, which the Oedipus complex of “The Art Critic” also demonstrates.
To the untrained eye, Rockwell’s work is all about innocence. Rockwell knew as good as anyone that innocence is a commodity, a fact he makes known in his book through frequently disclosing how well he was paid. “Rockwell and others such as Walt Disney purveyed a view of American culture that was patriotic, optimistic, and imbued with middle-class values, secure in the virtuousness and rightness of the American way” (Halpern 8). For generations of Americans Rockwell symbolizes a better time when life was simple. He also remains the poster boy for American conservativism. In reality, he was a progressive thinker who often felt stifled in his limitations as a commercial artist. The Saturday Evening Post didn’t allow him to place African Americans on the cover except for rare instances. Only near the end of his life when he was painting for himself did he tackle issues such as racism head-on in his work.
As a well-paid illustrator, Rockwell understood the commodity of innocence and had personal reasons to value it. Rockwell battled feelings of inadequacy his entire life. As a young man, he was gangly and unatheletic, constantly made fun of for his beanpole frame and large Adam’s apple. Throughout his career, even at the height of his popularity, he was banished by the art world for being a commercial illustrator. “That is the essential paradox of Rockwell’s life: he was America’s best-loved and most famous artist but, according to the gatekeepers of the institutional world of art, he wasn’t an artist at all” (Marling 7). These deep-seeded insecurities translated into opposite themes in his paintings; scenes of nostalgic innocence and great humor. There were episodes from Rockwell’s childhood that profoundly shaped his views on innocence and idealism. In his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator”, Rockwell relates a powerful memory from his boyhood in New York City, which continues to haunt him even as an old man:
“The memory is of a vacant lot in the yellow light of late afternoon, and a drunken woman in filthy gray rags following a man and beating him over the head with an umbrella. The man stumbling through the coarse littered grass, his arms raised to cover his head, and the woman cursing and screaming, beating him incessantly until he fell, then standing over him, kicking and striking him again and again about the head and belly and legs. And I remember that we kids watched, silent, from the edges of the lot, until a policeman ran up and grabbed the woman. The man got slowly up and seeing the policeman struggling with the woman, attacked him, swinging drunkenly and swearing. Against this image of the city, exaggerated and distorted as it is, I have never been able to rid myself of it entirely” (Rockwell 31).
It was with deep personal insecurities and doubts about potential for the world that Rockwell made images for the masses. Understanding his viewpoint is helpful in understanding his work. The big question remains: how can I use the example of Rockwell’s work in my own? Having researched this new approach to Rockwell, the topic of disavowal is something I am deeply interested in. I’ve always been aware of the duality in my subject matter, and Rockwell’s use of hiding things in plain sight is intriguing to me. I do not aspire to make Rockwellian paintings that so blatantly grasp nostalgia, but I do see commonalities with his work.
If disavowal is simultaneously knowing and not knowing something, I think it’s a proper context to explain how my work functions and a good concept to push in future work. When the viewer encounters my paintings, they know the images on a surface level. With 50s images, there is an undeniable nostalgia that resonates with people, regardless of age and experience. The viewer can understand scenes of families and resonate with the collective idealized American memory of post-war America. Also inherent in the imagery is the reality behind 50s optimism or the “not knowing” of disavowal- the absence of diversity, the differences in family dynamics and domestic roles, and the presence of constant cold war fear. These are a few of the many aspects to the period that get glazed over by idealism. When I confront old photographs of unknown people, I’m interested in who they are behind the veneer. I’d like to think that the viewer is also confronted with this question. I’m also interested in making my painting accessible and visually alluring in a way that speaks to idealism while at the same time saying more. Merely consuming an image- as opposed to confronting it- is what allows disavowal to do its work.
Richard Halpern sums up Rockwell best: “If disavowal bespeaks an inability to bear complication, and if it reacts to its discomfort by splitting and idealizing its subjects, then Rockwell’s lessons about disavowal can never be grasped unless we are willing to see this artist for the complex creature he is: a wholesome pervert, a knowing innocent, and a kitschy genius” (Halpern 52). Rockwell’s work and the concept of disavowal has taught me that I can be more deliberate about introducing those undercurrents to my work. The trick then becomes doing so without tuning the painting into an overly accessible Rockwellian narrative. And so, the work continues.
Halpern, Richard. “Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence”. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 2006.
Hennessey, Maureen Hart and Anne Knutson. “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People”. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Marling, Karal Ann. “Rockwell: Americas Most Loved Painter”. Taschen, Köln, 2005.
Rockwell, Norman. “My Adventures as an Illustrator”. Henry N. Abrams, New York. 1988