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Käthe Kollwitz: Piéces de Resistance

by DeWitt Cheng

For me the Koenigsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish Jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement the gesture of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The  proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. 

—     Käthe Kollwitz, “Diary and Letters”

George Orwell famously said, “If there was hope, it must lie with the proles.” It’s an epigram that sounds bravely subversive and democratic, but does anyone really believe it anymore (if we ever did), given what we now know about the inequities of politics in our not-so democratic republic. And it is not Orwell who speaks, but the antihero of “1984,” Winston Smith, destined to be broken by the promised terrors of Room 101. In our current descent into oligarchy, American proles have likewise truckled to power. Frightened, angered and exhilarated by the right-wing groupthink flooding their 4K/Dolby telescreens and ‘Think-Different” Macs, they continue to adore Big Brother. A third of the voters, still mesmerized by the 24/7 three-minute hates, have clambered happily into into Orwell’s tyrannical boot, forever stamping the human face.

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Káthe Kollwitz, 1906, in front of her etching “Carmagnole.” Photographer: Philipp Kester. All images © Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne.

Art reflects the values of the society and culture, and contemporary art has in recent years roused itself from the dogmatic slumbers of formalist innovation. More and more artists use their practices to participate in national and global life rather than to self-quarantine in the studio — as ‘free’ in their invisible chains as the covid denialists they deplore. Philip Guston famously abandoned abstraction during the turbulent 1960s. Decades later, others following his example dare to question the solipsism and careerism of the art business world.

 

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) serves as an exemplar for sociopolitical artists in our, in any troubled times. The prolific graphic artist and sculptor harnessed her considerable energies to humanistic goals when monarchist and fascist powers affirmed that might was obviously, naturally right. Her powerful and impassioned work is sometimes disparaged as political — and therefore corny, irrelevant, and tendentious: Tendenzkunst propaganda, not ‘real’ art, which is made for the delectation of connoisseurs. The class element of this criticism somehow escapes the notice of bien-pensant liberals. I believe the time requires that Kollwitz’s work be reengaged by a general audience. Let this article serve as a fresh introduction; call it Kollwitz 101.

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Käthe Kollwitz, Scene from "Germinal," 1893, line etching, drypoint, sandpaper.

Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to the feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable. 

— Käthe Kollwitz, Diary and Letters

 

The delicate feet of women artists have always walked in the footsteps of men, they have never led, rather they have always followed. 

—Hans Rosenhagen, German art critic, 1894

Käthe Schmidt grew up in Königsberg, Prussia, in a cultured middle-class family. She would marry Dr. Karl Kollwitz at age 23 in 1890, and they would locate in Berlin the following year, where they would remain for the entire 50 years of their successful marriage.

The Schmidts were progressives who encouraged her artistic talent when women were rarities in the art world. Few career paths lay open to them, and the very notion of a woman artist was treated with mockery and disdain. Germany, boasting military might and scientific/industrial prowess, was emerging as a world power governed by a monarch and, in the Prussian Junkers, a landed aristocracy with ties to the military, that despised democracy, liberalism and even free thought.

 

The Schmidt family did not toe this line. Karl Schmidt, Kollwitz’s father, was an adherent of the SDP, a left wing social democratic party, and although he had studied the law, he chose to work as a mason and builder instead of engaged combat with the conservative legal establishment. His father-in-law, Julius Rupp, was a leftist who had served prison time for his communistic beliefs and later founded a church dedicated to progressive causes, which Karl took over after his death. Käthe’s brothers, Karl, Hans and Konrad, also became socialists. Karl, welcoming her to Berlin, took her to the Friedrichshain Cemetery, where two hundred laborers, inspired by contemporaneous protests in France, had been shot by the Kaiser’s forces and buried anonymously beneath a headstone inscribed, “Died March 18, 1848,” thirty-seven years before the young tourist's visit.

Given such family politics, it is not surprising that the young artist found herself attracted to the working classes, initially on aesthetic and emotional terms. As a young girl, sometimes beset by nightmares and spells of silent introversion, she had admired the “fun-loving, entertaining, and cheerful Polish, Russian and Lithuanian dockhands, dancing on their boats to accordions. She responded to “the woman question” then in circulation with both empathy and militancy. Once she started to find her way into social content, she decided it was best communicated through the revived medium of printmaking.

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Käthe Kollwitz, "The Carmagnole," 1901, line etching, drypoint, aquatint respectively brush etching, sandpaper.

“Suddenly I saw that I was not a painter at all … Color was my stumbling block,” Kollwitz wrote, confirmation that her talent and interest lay in drawing, and, later, printmaking (which she learned informally through self-study and the help of artist friends), but not painting. The printmaker and sculptor Leonard Baskin wrote of her temperament: “The blandishment of colors, the inevitable sensuousness of fat oil or sparkling water paints were alien to her needs. She lived in a world of blacks and whites.” A mentor, the fantasy artist Max Klinger, now best known for his proto-surrealist etching series, “Adventures of a Glove,” had theorized, in his influential “Painting and Drawing” (1885), which Kollwitz admired:

Drawing in line invites one to cyclical compositions … presenting the artist with a cornucopia  of fantastic notions and images … The draftsman … looks perpetually at the unfilled holes, the yearned-for and barely attainable ... the draftsman cannot escape his more negative vision beyond appearance.

If Klinger’s dichotomy now seems simplistic, his support encouraged the young Kollwitz to follow her own direction. In her early prints, from the turn of the century to the aftermath of the Great War, there grew a sympathy for the underdog and a rage for social justice that belied the artist’s personally quiet demeanor. These early series, which employed etching and stone lithography, sometimes together, are pictorially conceived: individual independent artworks that stand within and elucidate a narrative framework. With each series comprising different dimensions and proportions, and even media, resulting from Kollwitz’s restless experimentation, these hybrid productions prioritize the unruly creative process over commercial or even practical concerns; yet their emotional power was discerned immediately.

 

By age thirty-two Kollwitz was recognized as an important artist tackling a timely and difficult subject. The Kaiser disapprovingly vetoed an award because of her gender as well as her politics, and his wife subsequently insisted that Kollwitz’s unblinkingly truthful imagery on posters for a large art exhibition be covered before she would deign to enter. Such opposition had no effect on the stubbornly independent artist, who certainly internalized the dicta of grandfather Julius, “Talent is a responsibility,” and father Karl, “Be what you have chosen to be with all your heart.”

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Käthe Kollwitz, “Storming the Gate,” sheet 5 of the cycle “A Weavers’ Revolt,” 1893-1897, crayon, pen and brush lithograph with scratch technique.

Ein Weber Aufstand, A Weaver’s Revolt (1893-7)

 

On February 28, 1893, the twenty-six-year -old artist attended the premiere of Gerhard Hauptmann’s play, “Die Weber, The Weavers,” at the Berliner Freie Bühne, The Independent Stage Company of Berlin. The play depicts the 1844 revolt of Silesian peasant weavers against their capitalist bosses and exploiters, and it galvanized Kollwitz to make her own treatment, a suite of six prints, three etchings and three lithographs, “A Weaver’s Revolt,” over the next four years, saw Kollwitz depicting grim scenes of lower-class misery and revolt. While she also drew on Emile Zola’s “Germinal“ and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” it was in “The Weaver’s Revolt” that Kollwitz’s pictorial influences coalesce into an revelatory documentation of the uprising from its causes to its tragic aftermath. 

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Kollwitz, “Death,” sheet 2 of the cycle “A Weavers’ Revolt,”

1893-1897, crayon, pen and brush lithograph with scratch technique.

In “Poverty,” or “Need,” we are transported to one of the worker’s dark hovels, where a prematurely aged mother stares fixedly in disbelief at her sleeping infant, its face aglow with fever, surrounded by looms and reels cloth. In “Death,” we see her again in the dark cramped quarters, now slumped against a wall, with a skeletal death plucking at her sleeve, with her husband and child looking on uncomprehendingly. In “Conspiracy,” a trio of men huddles over a shadowy tavern table. “March of the Weavers” and “Storming the Gate” depict the weavers, armed with axes, mallets and scythes, and even cobblestones pried from the street, in revolt against their employer, unseen behind his ornate mansion gates. 

 

In “End,” we are back in the weaver’s hovel, as workers bring in the bodies of the slain, witnessed by a somber woman in black, mourned by a boy huddled beneath the giant loom; it’s a secular Lamentation and Deposition. The series, exhibited in 1898, made Kollwitz’s reputation, and garnered her prizes despite the veto of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who branded it “art of the gutter.” When one print sold for five hundred marks ($120, one historian estimated in 1976), the artist was astounded: “I was so surprised that I stood still with my mouth open.” In later years, after her renunciation of direct action (as advocated by the Communists and radical Socialists) in favor of pacifism, Kollwitz paid an ambiguous tribute to the playwright: “But when an artist like Hauptmann comes along and shows us revolution transfigured by art, we again feel ourselves revolutionaries, again fall for the old deception.”

Bauernkrieg, Peasant’s War (1902-8)

 

Another working-class revolt, although dating three centuries earlier, became the subject of Kollwitz’s next print series, based on Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1844 book, “The Great German Peasants’ War.” In 1524 and 1525, peasants in Germany and Austria rose in vast numbers to protest the economic misery forced on them as the aristocracy, citing Roman civil law over medieval custom, seized lands formerly held in common and traditionally farmed for the common good

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Käthe Kollwitz, “Raped,” sheet 2 of the cycle “Peasants War,” 1907/08, line etching, drypoint,

sandpaper, aquatint and soft ground with imprint of laid paper and Zieglers transfer paper.

Other factors contributed to the revolt: rivalries between the burghers and the nobles, between rival dynasties, and between secular and religious authorities. The religious radical Thomas Müntzer roused the peasantry with utopian fantasies and was arrested and executed. His rival, Martin Luther, wrote, in “Against the Robbing Murderous Peasants,” that the rebels “must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog.” The alliance of aristocrats (with their well-trained and equipped troops) with the church (whose properties were under attack) led to a massacre of between 100,000 and 300,000 insurgents, blinded by the righteousness of their cause, to the realities of organized, professional violence.

Once again, Kollwitz chose to depict, with great sympathy and power, a doomed rebellion. In “The Plowmen,” the artist depicts two agricultural laborers, in harness, rent nearly horizontal in their labors, reduced to beasts of burden. “Raped” shows a victim of sexual assault and murder, lying amid a trampled garden. Compositionally, it relates to the male victim in his nightdress of Honore Daumier’s “Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834,” but Kollwitz’s violated woman, an anonymous Ophelia destroyed by male madness, seemingly returning to nature, remains shocking even now. “Sharpening the Scythe” is equally shocking, though in a different way. An old woman prepares her weapon, eyes closed, head cocked, as if listening to the blade. The blade and scythe handle suggest a flexed arm or leg, suggestive of the carving of human flesh. 

 

“Arming in a Vault” and “Charge” are dynamic compositions that communicate the exaltation of the mob. In the former, the peasants, brandishing pikes and sickles, storm en masse along an ascending spiral. In the latter, they charge headlong across a plain toward the city of Heilbronn, goaded on by the peasant leader Black Anna, Schwarze Hofmännin, a historical figure with whom the artist identified. (The triangular composition pairs nicely with El Lissitzky’s 1919 “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge,” from the Russian civil war.) Finally, in “Battlefield” and “The Prisoners” comes the magic dénouement. In the former, an old woman holds a lamp above the dead in the dark  of night, an eerie reprise of Goya’s horrific scenes from “Disasters of War.” “The Prisoners” depicts a line-up of bound inmates cordoned off by a rope line, a lumpen mass of humanity awaiting collective execution. In their varied emotional reactions, it bears a resemblance to Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais.”

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Käthe Kollwitz, “Sharpening the Scythe,” sheet 3 of the cycle “Peasants War,” 1908, line etching, drypoint, sandpaper, aquatint and soft ground with imprint of laid paper and Zieglers transfer paper.

Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (1919-20)

 

After the Great War ended in 1918, the harshly punitive measures imposed on Germany by the victorious Allies caused the devastation of the economy. Millions lost their savings even if their livelihoods survived the chaos, inevitably triggering strife among various political factions. This led to the eventual triumph of the Nazi Party in 1933.

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Käthe Kollwitz, “In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht,” 1920, woodcut (third and final version).

On January 15,1919, two radical leftists, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, were arrested and executed by government-directed paramilitaries known as the Freikorps, or Free Corps, composed of war veterans. Both had been members of the Socialist Party, but had abandoned it when it supported the government during the war. They founding the antiwar, communist Spartakusbund, or Spartacus League, which attempted to oust the postwar socialist government. In the power struggle contest between the SDP Social Democrats in power and the KDP communists under Luxembourg and Liebknecht, the resolution was violent. 

 

Kollwitz, who by this time, after the 1918 loss of her son Peter during the war, had no patience for violence from either side. She was invited by the Liebknecht family to view his body in the mortuary, where she sketched the Marxist martyr, his bullet-pierced forehead wreathed by red flowers. Kollwitz reacted to this:

As you know, I was politically opposed but … I read his letters, with the result that his personality appeared to me in the purest light. The immense impression made by the hundred thousand mourners at his grave inspired me to a work.

The artist, now in her 50s, having admired the simplified, expressive figurative woodcuts and sculptures of Ernst Barlach, was moving toward the woodcuts and sculpture that would occupy her remaining years.  The final Liebknecht print, with its stark contrasts of light and dark, and its thirteen mourning men all individually differentiated, joined by a mother a child, is a tour de force: a lamentation for a fallen hero, now belonging to the ages, and, with the caption running beneath the slab-like white sheet, a pledge of commitment and continuity: die Liebendem dem Toten, from the living to the dead.

Kollwitz during the Third Reich

 

It is obvious that Kollwitz’s heroes emerge from her own strong character. In 1936 the Gestapo paid the famous socialist artist, now almost seventy, a visit, demanding that she retract statements made to the Russian newspaper, Izvestia, under the threat of imprisonment in a concentration camp. This she did, while refusing to inform on another artist. She and her husband carried suicide pills thereafter, which were fortunately never used. While Kollwitz was not forbidden create, as others had been, she was forced to resign from her teaching post at the Prussian Academy. Her work was branded degenerate; even the monumental sculpture, “Tower of Mothers,” was suppressed. The Nazis hounded not only leftists, but also feminists, because of the role liberal women had played in their electoral humiliation in 1928. Kollwitz was characteristically stoic about this harassment:

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Käthe Kollwitz, “Tower of Mothers,” 1937/38,
bronze, 11 1/8 x 10 7/8 x 11 1/4"

I want to and must be among those who have been slapped down. The financial loss … is a matter of course. Thousands are going through the same experience. It is nothing to complain about.

On October 14,1942, her grandson Peter was killed fighting in Russia, tragically paralleling the death of her son in Flanders in 1918. On November 23,1943, the Berlin tenement where Kollwitz and her husband, a Kassenarzt doctor employed under the German’s national health insurance plan, had lived in since 1891, was bombed, destroying whatever artwork had not yet been removed to safety. Kollwitz died on April 22,1945, a week before Hitler’s death, and three weeks before V-E Day.

Every war carries within it the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by another war, until everything, everything is smashed. That is why I am so wholeheartedly for a radical end to this madness. Pacifism is not simply a matter of calm looking on; it is work, hard work. 

—     Käthe Kollwitz, Diary and Letters

Kollwitz’s legacy — from the dead to the living — has been profound and deep. After the Great War the artist lost the “revolutionary hatred” of her youth and focused not on historical injustices of the past but the victims of ongoing inequity and barbarism. Works produced after the Great War, such as the sculpture "Tower of Mothers," continue to strike at our hearts and moral consciences.

Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

DeWitt Cheng

Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live With,” 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 58″. Story illustration for “Look” magazine. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Philadelphia

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“You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.” 

—Alfred Waddell

 

1. The Peculiar Institution

 

If the name of Alfred Waddell does not ring a bell, his sentiments certainly do. Waddell and his fellow white-supremacist Red Shirts initiated the massacre of blacks and a political coup d’état in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August, 1898. Brandishing a White Declaration of Independence, they stormed and destroyed a black-owned progressive newspaper; murdered perhaps three hundred blacks; and invaded City Hall, threatening elected officials there with summary execution, and leading them to the train station with nooses tied around their necks and promises of certain death if they returned. They even threatened the governor with lynching, forcing him to hide in a train baggage car. A local historian praised the new Waddell administration: “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office … were men of property, intelligence, culture …. clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” State officials appalled by the massacre tried to prevent a recurrence — by further disenfranchising the black vote.

 

The dark side of white supremacy that shocked the nation on January 6 is no longer hidden, it’s right out in the open. No longer is the bigotry rationalized away as excess zeal by “good people” upset with bad economics or the theatrical she toys promulgated by right-wing think tanks: fake news, enemies of the people, caravans, the China virus, the ‘stolen’ election, critical race theory, etc. The demographic change well under way, the browning of America, has brought to light the fraud and corruption of those benefiting from America’s systemic racism and classism, and the lawless violence from those already exploited, fearful and angry, who are cleverly misdirected to seek out scapegoats. Current attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting rights for minorities replay the measures taken by the Democratic South after Reconstruction to preserve white dominance and dominion from the egalitarian reforms promulgated by the Party of Lincoln. We are repeating the sad history of the late nineteenth history, with the parties’ roles reversed. Republican voters are often ignorant of the great polarity change that began in the late 1960s

 

The Republican Party, for a century exemplified by Lincoln and Emancipation, reversed course in the tumultuous year of 1968, wooing the southern white vote that had deserted Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats after passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That bipartisan legislation, which passed with the votes of moderate and liberal Republicans, attempted to restore the minority-voting protections instituted after the Civil War, reforms that had ben sadly eroded over time by state government houses, a compliant judiciary, and the KKK — not a mob, of course. Now, two generations after Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has chosen to pursue and retain power without the ideological-cover code words employed by Nixon and later Ronald Reagan.

 

Reagan, if you are old enough to remember, began his 1980 campaign in Oxford, Mississippi, near the Philadelphia site of the infamous 1964 Mississippi Burning killing of three civil-rights workers, with a speech championing states’ rights, the Confederacy’s genteel euphemism for its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The historically ignorant Trump has cynically returned us to the 1850s, and, to paraphrase The Great Emancipator, now we are again engaged in a great civil war, testing whether our democratic nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

 

2. A Nation of Benign Villagers

 

What has this tragic history got to do with Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), the artist-illustrator of homey Americana, whose name was a mass-audience byword for half a century, but a joke for art-world sophisticates? Rockwell’s art has become associated with the glorification of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. This is only partly fair, in that his body of work constructed the myth of a benign and gentle small-town America that proved so endearing to tens of millions of Americans. His was a gently humorous Dickensian prettification of the countries less attractive realities. This is partly unfair, because the artist was liberal in his personal convictions, although he generally did not to make them public, preferring to be considered an independent and largely apolitical. 

 

“I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate,” said Rockwell. “I am angry at unjust prejudices in other people or myself.” In 1948 he voted for Socialist Norman Thomas — Thomas’ platform sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’ — and preached through his paintings the New England virtues of tolerance and humor. He avoided the dark side of things largely because of his own predilection for the healthy and happy moments of daily life, and the dictates of George Lorimer, his longtime editor at The Saturday Evening Post. Lorimer was a self-made man who promoted individual self-reliance to an audience eager to believe in the American dream.

 

Over his long career, Rockwell produced some 4,000 images, including 800 magazine covers and paintings for 150 corporate ad campaigns. His laborious process involved creating a narrative idea and then outfitting it with props and posed, paid models — “real people,” whom he scouted out among family, friends and even strangers on the street, who were, as he achieved iconic familiarity, happy to pose for the famous artist. He amassed props and costumes as had the illustrators he adored in his youth. When his studio burned down in 1943, he consoled himself for the lost art and artifacts with a characteristically wry sketch, as always impeccably rendered. Rockwell worked seven days a week and always had a considerable backlog. This seems to have been only in part the product of his financial situation. His psychological conviction was that unless he worked ceaselessly, he would revert to the graceless, awkward ‘lump’ he had been as a child. 

 

“All I had was the ability to draw … I began to make it my whole life. I drew all the time. Gradually my narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes became less important to me. My feelings no longer paralyzed me. I drew and drew and drew.”

 

An illustrator friend joked that “Rockwell’s hobbies are work and work.” Rockwell took pride in his hard-won fame and success as America’s supreme mythographer, succeeding his idols, Howard Pyle (whose work Rockwell would have selected for potential desert-island exile, along with a couple of Rembrandts); and his friend and colleague, Joseph C. Leydendecker, to whom he paid understated tribute: “Apart from my admiration for his technique, his painting, his character and his diligence, he didn’t have that much impact upon my work.” But while Rockwell's artistic superpowers and stamina granted him rewards, he never took success for granted, conscious of illustrator colleagues who had committed suicide when their work lost popularity. So Rockwell took commissions that may appear to us unworthy of his developing talents, and always felt overworked and harried by deadlines. He took a perverse New Englander’s pleasure in frugally not charging corporate clients the full fare he could have commanded.

 

3. Artist or Illustrator?

 

Rockwell was often restless in what he saw as the subservient role of illustrator, even as he lent his magic touch to Hallmark cards, Boy Scout calendars, Sun-Maid raisins and McDonald’s hamburgers. He occasionally hankered for art-world respectability even though the art world had long since redefined the role of drawing, which he saw as the touchstone of art (despite his eventual use of photography, as in 1948’s “The Gossips”). He neatly captured the dilemma in a 1962 work, “Art Connoisseur,” with its well-dressed bourgeois viewer, his back to us, like and yet so very unlike the figures in a German Romantic landscape painting, contemplating Rockwell’s well-executed pastiche of Jackson Pollock. 

 

He also played with ideas about representation that artists and art critics might have accepted had they been less middlebrow and folksy and more ironic, as in “Framed” (1946), with its portly museum guard carrying an empty picture frame and being framed by it; or “Triple Self Portrait” (1960), a revisitation of an earlier painting, “Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline)” (1938), with the artist at his easel. Here, seen from behind, he contemplates his reflection, while his charcoal sketch avatar regards us quizzically, all three Rockwells equipped with painted pipes that are decidedly not those of Magritte. 

 

Rockwell occasionally referred to himself as an artist, or, more specifically, a genre artist: “that’s spelled g-e-n-r-e,” he explained to an interviewer. Critics have pointed out his stylistic ties to Dutch genre painters, especially the humorous ones such as Jan Steen, and to the realist painters of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Such a Dickensian amalgam of humor and realism would be treated with distain after World War II: “Geep-gosh-shickisism” was the memorable put-down of one critic. Another factor was Rockwell’s determination that his works speak to the viewer immediately, without the need for intermediaries. The historian Paul Johnson speculates: “Critics dismissed Rockwell for the usual trade union reasons. They have nothing to say about pictures which explain themselves. Rockwell gave them no intermediary function.” Rockwell’s summation of his position: “I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.”

 

4. The “Big Idea” Paintings

 

But occasionally Rockwell was able to escape the confining bonhomie of Pleasantville (Dave Hickey’s term) and his own desire to gratify his audience and employers. He painted four presidents: Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. His stunning portrait of John F. Kennedy exemplifies the energy and promise of the 1960s, as well at Kennedy’s cool intelligence; while his Nixon portrait, which he conceded was “no Rembrandt,” probably reflects Rockwell’s distaste for the candidate whom he had observed wheedling votes from two maids in a hotel hallway. Rockwell's hankering to tackle “big ideas” — like the painting of a black man for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post — usually met with objections from his immovable editor, but World War II provided bracing challenges worthy of the illustrator’s ambition. “Rosie the Riveter” (1943) celebrates the heroism and character of American working women on the home front who helped win the war of attrition against totalitarianism. Its mixture of admiration and humor — and Michelangelo — make this an icon of democratic and feminist grit. 

 

“The Four Freedoms” (1942) paintings illustrating President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union goals (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear) were printed as Post covers. To aid the war effort they were published as posters, raising $133M in war bond sales. The most familiar of the four is “Freedom from Want,” its multigenerational-family Thanksgiving dinner exudingthe small-town values for which the Greatest Generation had gone to war.Almost as familiar is “Freedom of Speech,” with its young Lincolnesque worker, standing up to voice his opinion at a town hall meeting, with his neighbors respectfully hearing him out. All of the models, it must be pointed out, were Rockwell’s neighbors. 

 

In the 1960s, as Rockwell was entering his seventies, he started working for LOOK magazine, which afforded him more creative latitude. In 1954, the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools in its unanimous Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In 1960, Louisiana was compelled to comply by federal marshals, who escorted six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class at William Frantz Public School in New Orleans. In Rockwell’s 1963 painting. published in 1964, she is shown dressed in white, toting pencils, books and a ruler surrounded by burly men wearing armbands, none of whose faces is visible; behind them is a wall defaced by a racist epithet and a smashed tomato. Bridges was the only student at the school for a time, the white students having been kept at home in protest. The painting was exhibited in the White House during the Obama administration. 

 

A year later, in 1965, Rockwell painted “Southern Justice (Mississippi Murder),” a passionate denunciation of the racist atrocity of Philadelphia, Mississippi: three young civil right workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, were mutilated and murdered by a racist mob sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Rockwell. who had often disclaimed his inability to paint “evil sorts of subjects,” on this occasion channeled his rage into the tragic yet heroic depiction of the secular martyrs’ last moments. Goodman stands, illuminated by car headlights, facing the mob, which is invisible but for metonymic shadows and sticks, while a wounded Chaney sags to his knees; the dead Schwerner lies at their feet. Goya’s nocturnal execution scene “The Third of May,” with its dramatic lighting and its angrily expressionistic paint handling, almost indecipherable in the face of one victim, is an obvious influence on this stark and nearly monochromatic image from which every trace of ingratiating humor has been banished. It is a worthy successor to Goya’s masterpiece, and superior in its strong feeling to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” (1951), painted a decade earlier. (Rockwell, incidentally admired Picasso.) LOOK, in an unusual decision, published the looser sketch rather than the tighter finished painting.

 

5. Success and Failure

 

If this conjunction of the current political crisis confronting American democracy and the career of Norman Rockwell seem an odd match, they share a misconception about the American experiment. Rockwell’s nostalgic vision of small-town innocents was originally useful as a sort of creation myth for our polyglot country: the promise that the melting pot might result in an open, tolerant society accessible to all. This was surely attractive to the new generation of immigrants, and perhaps also to established elites who saw self interest in the stability this implied. Today, with the browning of America, we are all too aware of the dark, violent, exploitative side of recently latent but now fully awakened white supremacy. 

 

We are left in need of a new sustaining myth to encompass the new realities rather than sugarcoat the electorate with the old fantasies of American exceptionalism. Late in his career, when he could, Rockwell moved beyond the sentimental but good-natured straitjacket that he had himself created decades ago. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had he adjusted his aim higher earlier in his career, say, during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

 

The Marxist art critic John Berger, in “The Success and Failure of Picasso” (1993), suggested that Picasso’s late art could have benefited had the artist changed his focus from private concerns to public ones: from his own mortality and aging after a lifetime of brilliant, swaggering egocentrism to the wider world devastated by predatory capitalist ball-swinging. Berger cited Africa as a possible focus for Picasso, who owed African culture a great debt going back to his Cubist innovations. The same public-private criticism might be made of Rockwell, even though his private world verged on gentle whimsy rather than the forcible, prehensile reshaping of visual reality. 

 

Ultimately, however, we can’t condemn Rockwell (or Picasso) for not being too kind or gentle (or not kind and gentle enough), given his immense talents in popular storytelling — for ‘’democratic history painting,” to once more cite Dave Hickey’s phrase. Considering how viciously partisan public discourse has become, would a modern dose of “Freedom of Speech” be so bad? Can anyone alive today talk sense to the Trump mob? Rockwell, Great Communicator, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

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