Two of the greatest story-tellers of the 20th century say that they both learned how to tell a story from the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws”), close friends and sometime collaborators (the Indiana Jones movies) both collect the work of America’s foremost illustrator because they love the way he packs an entire story into just one frame.
For the first time, their collections are being made available to the public at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington D.C. until January 2, 2011 in an exhibit called Telling Stories. In a movie accompanying the exhibit, the film-makers talk about how as children they scrutinized every detail of the pictures to understand the story behind each one and how that inspired their visual styles. Spielberg talks about two paintings in particular that continue to inspire him — one of an author at his typewriter dreaming up a story about Daniel Boone and one of a boy holding on for dear life to the end of a high dive board, peering down at the endless space below. He says the first inspires him to tell stories and the second is how he feels every single time just before he signs on to do another film.
Rockwell has been taken for granted, marginalized, and dismissed as corny by those who think that art has to be anguished and the era of representation is over. But shows like this one are recognizing that he deserves to be seen as an artist of the first rank in ability and importance. He is not unaware of despair, squalor, and pain. Indeed, it is all there in his pictures, if you look. But his images are aspirational, inspiring us to live up to the values and dreams of our forefathers and, when we fail and fail again, to start over.
The Smithsonian has an online slide show of the highlights of the exhibit. And visitors to Stockbridge, Massachusetts should be sure to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum. The images are always powerful, but the chance to see the brushstrokes and the work that went into all of the preliminary sketches will deepen your appreciation for Rockwell as an illustrator and an artist of the first rank. I highly recommend his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator: Norman Rockwell, the DVD NORMAN ROCKWELL: An American Portrait, and the catalog of the show, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But most of all, I recommend seeing Rockwell’s pictures, masterful in technique and in spirit.