BALTIMORE — Norman Rockwell’s name is synonymous with his sentimental, idealized vision of the innocence of childhood. So perhaps it makes sense that his art is getting a sprawling, noisy, kid-friendly treatment in a touring exhibit at the Maryland Science Center.
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The hands-on show, titled “Rockwell’s America: Celebrating the Art of Norman Rockwell,” attempts to place Rockwell’s more than 300 Saturday Evening Post covers in the context of a changing society — one that absorbed new technology, survived the Great Depression and World War II and ultimately embraced civil rights.
The science center may seem like an unusual stop for what is, essentially, an art exhibit. But Van Reiner, the museum’s president, doesn’t see it that way.
“Rockwell did a great job chronicling the advancement of technology,” Reiner said. “And when you look at the rest of our museum — did dinosaurs live today? No, but you need to know something about the history of that.”
“Rockwell’s America” invites visitors to step inside his paintings — to hear, touch and feel his work along with viewing it. And like Rockwell, it tugs unapologetically at the heartstrings.
“I think the goal here is that when you come away from this experience, whether you’re a grandparent or a parent or a child, that you’ve been touched emotionally,” said Glenn Tilley, president of the Becker Group, which conceived and assembled “Rockwell’s America.”
Goal to celebrate, not to critique
The Becker Group is a private, for-profit company based in Baltimore that got its start designing holiday displays for shopping malls and now specializes in immersive attractions, sometimes in partnership with movie studios that want to promote their latest releases.
“We’re a cross between an entertainment company, an advertising company and an exhibit company,” Tilley said. “It’s all marketing related, in terms of creating an experience.”
The goal of the show, then, is not to explore the aesthetics of Rockwell’s art; his critics and contemporaries don’t have a say. As the title says, the exhibit is a celebration, and it lauds Rockwell for exploring more serious topics, including the civil rights movement, in his later work. Whether he did so effectively remains debatable.
After an introductory video, visitors move into a fanciful re-creation of Rockwell’s studio. Then they step through a crooked picture frame, where they are met with life-sized, three-dimensional depictions of some of his best-known pictures. There’s a pond where a traveling salesman is taking an impromptu swim and a boy and girl sit, hand in hand. Addressing the theme of advancing technology, there’s a room dedicated to the evolution of the telephone and a makeshift TV and radio repair shop.
There’s plenty for kids to do, from dialing vintage phones to trying on costumes to sitting in a Model T Ford. Knickknacks are everywhere, accompanied by a din of sound effects and radio broadcasts.
A painting of a nervous father sitting with his son as he’s about to leave for college marks a transition into the more somber aspects of “Rockwell’s America.” Rockwell did some of his most vivid work during World War II, including a series chronicling a baby-faced young soldier named Willie Gillis and his iconic, “Rosie the Riveter,” a muscular redhead on her lunch break from a factory job, with her foot on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” It’s propaganda at its most effective.
Sometimes the presentation of “Rockwell’s America” is as overwrought and maudlin as some critics find Rockwell’s paintings.
In response President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 address to Congress about the “four freedoms” enjoyed by Americans — freedom of worship, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom from want — Rockwell painted a series of pictures that stand apart from most of his work for their stark photorealism. Reproductions of those paintings are mounted and lighted as if in a mausoleum.
Later, in the gallery of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, a cue from James Horner’s syrupy score from the movie “Legends of the Fall” is piped in on overhead speakers — reminding visitors that they’re supposed to be moved.
Music aside, the tribute gallery — with copies of all 322 covers that Rockwell painted for the Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963 — is the highlight of “Rockwell’s America.” At times, he would churn out a cover a week for several consecutive weeks. His output slowed in later years, but the covers became more adventurous and politically aware.
“Rockwell’s America” debuted at Opryland in Nashville, Tenn., and has traveled to Oklahoma City and Indianapolis. After its stint at the Maryland Science Center — which runs through January 2007 — it will continue touring. It’s been booked for Kansas City, Mo., and Raleigh, N.C., and will probably stay on tour through 2010, Tilley said.
The Baltimore stop has a bonus: an original oil-on-canvas of Hall of Fame Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson signing an autograph for a young fan. “Gee, Thanks, Brooks!” was painted in 1971 as an advertisement for Rawlings baseball gloves and Adirondack bats.
Robinson bought the painting at auction in 1994 for $200,000 — “a lot more money than the Orioles have ever paid me,” he said — and is lending it to the exhibit. Only after the purchase did Robinson learn that Rockwell, as he often did, had painted himself in the background, as one of the fans watching Robinson sign the autograph.
He vividly remembers the day he spent in Rockwell’s studio.
“It was like going back in time for me to walk in there and see all these little objects and things you recognized from way back when he was putting out a cover every week on the Saturday Evening Post,” Robinson said. “We talked about baseball a little, and we spent the whole day trying to get everything worked out and positioned just right, how he wanted it.”
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