I’ve spent the past five years in the photo department of The New Yorker, carefully reading magazine pieces and then researching or commissioning photographs to accompany them. The stories, from music reviews to war reporting to fiction, are the impetus for our photographs. I was curious to ask the writers, whose work informs me, inspires me, and alters my perspective about subjects that were previously far from my thoughts, if there were photographs that had done the same for them.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here is a selection of eight writers on photographs that they are thankful for.
I dropped out of college for this wave. It was way out in the country then, on the west end of Maui. Surfing it was like jumping on a roaring blue freight train. On great days, when it got crowded, it felt like a religious shrine overrun by passionate pilgrims. You half expected people to start speaking in tongues, to flail and foam at the mouth, or monastery monkeys to bomb us with guavas. Gratitude was a big part of the whole devotional-emotional mess. This photo became a popular poster. It’s my favorite image of the wave. I’m just finishing a surfing memoir, “Barbarian Days,” and this poster is on the wall in my office as I write. But the wave is no longer out in the sticks. Condos and golf courses have crept up to its doorstep. Conservationists, led by Les Potts, a guy I used to surf with there, have been battling the developers for years. This year, the good guys finally won. The state of Hawaii now owns this stretch of coast. It will stay wild and unbuilt, with public access unimpeded. Future generations will have Potts and his allies to thank.
Recently, I’ve been travelling in the Deep South, pausing at civil-rights sites along my reporting route—Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s’s bomb-pocked parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama, for starters, and Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Most of the landmarks that I’ve visited display iconic photographs of the movement’s labors, largely rooted in the politics and aesthetics of struggle: black youth and integrated Freedom Riders standing, disobediently civil, before snarling police dogs and sneering lunch-counter crowds. Here, though, I’ve plucked a photograph from the movement that draws its strength less from struggle than from domestic affection, which seems well-suited to file under “Thanksgiving”: an image from Grey Villet’s 1965 series, for Life magazine, on Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple in Central Point, Virginia, who helped to end the interminable era of anti-miscegenation statutes. The power of the series lies in the quiet intimacies that it captures. Mostly, the photos depict everyday life: eating, idling, kissing, conferring. In this particular shot, the Lovings watch TV and laugh—a reminder that to lounge about in simple communion can sometimes be beautifully subversive, too.
I found a clutch of photographs to be thankful for last January. Friends took me to a screening that was part of MOMA’s “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” exhibit. That night, several of Shuji Terayama’s films played, including his infamous “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” which walks a very fine line between exploring the sexualization of childhood dress-up play and “hold up, pal.” The curator and archivist Johan Kugelberg, of Boo-Hooray, described Terayama, via e-mail, as “the number one King Tarzan of Japanese avant-garde theatre. He was also such a key instigator for Japanese underground art, and he was central for the psych-y/folk-y bands in Tokyo: Murahatsibu, Brain Police, that sort of thing.” Ubuweb hosts a variety of Terayama films, but they no longer host a copy of a 1975 book of his photography called, informally, “The Inugamis.” This eBay listing is the closest you can get at the moment. I was only able to find a digital scan of the book on a torrent site; three hundred dollars is too much for any book, even one as perverse and fertile as this one. Terayama is still relevant at home, and his work was featured in a photography show last March, which was held, oddly, on “the ninth floor of Armani’s luxury flagship in Ginza.”
Steven C. Ridgely’s “Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji,” cites the full Japanese title of the book as “Terayama Shūji gensōshshinkan: Inugami-ke no hitobito” (“Terayama Shūji’s Fantasy Photo Studio: Members of the Inugami clan, 1975”). It is, to use the art-history term, fucking crazy-pants. Some of models are actual members of Terayama’s family, and others are his friends. Some subjects are presented in vaguely military garb, arrayed in retro, heavily gilded, family-photo-album fashion. There are several grainy black-and-white photos of half-clad women sitting, smiling, or letting their hair flap in the wind. Terayama seems to have a productive lack of regard for historical trends and for place—the book leaps all over, as if four different generations had stitched together their portraits to make a demented whole.
My favorite photograph in the book is of a man squatting in a bathtub, up to his chest in water, wearing a suit, and holding an umbrella; it’s framed with an engraved wooden oval, like a family portrait. The image comes to mind every few months, a scene that is right on the edge of being possible, which makes the viewer both want to unravel the staging of the photo and to accept it, to believe that Terayama and his Inugami clan were simply sharing their life as they lived it.
In January, 1871, Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer whose portraits of Tennyson, Darwin, Browning, and Carlyle remain among the most durable images of the Victorian age, sent a package of her pictures to one of the most prominent women of the era, George Eliot, whom she had never met. In her thank-you note, Eliot expressed admiration for Cameron’s work, as well as a hope that one day Cameron might pay her a visit at home, in Saint John’s Wood, London.
Here’s what should have happened then: Julia Margaret Cameron should have leapt on a train, armed with her photographic equipment and her steely persuasiveness, gone to Eliot’s house, and insisted that the novelist—who was in the midst of writing “Middlemarch”—sit for a portrait on the spot. Cameron might have been able to capture something of Eliot’s great seriousness, intelligence, and generosity—her expression “not only of habitual brooding thought and intellectual travail but of intense and yearning human sympathy and tenderness,” as one observer put it.
Unfortunately, Cameron never made Eliot’s portrait. Instead, what we are left with is this: an image of Eliot taken at a well-known London studio, in 1858. “I have rather a horror of photography,” Eliot wrote a couple of years later, and, looking at the unbecomingly girlish posture in which the photographer has positioned her, one can guess why. For a long time, this picture made me cringe on George Eliot’s behalf. It seems lacking in dignity—diminishing, somehow. But after visiting the archive of the National Portrait Gallery, in London, where it is kept, and thinking hard about the circumstances of its making, I see it differently.
A year before the portrait was taken, Eliot’s first work of fiction, “Scenes of Clerical Life,” appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. Its pseudonymous author was greeted with acclaim, and with perplexity as to his identity. By January of 1858, Eliot had finished her first novel, “Adam Bede.” It, too, became a sensation upon publication, in January, 1859, and was also published pseudonymously. George Eliot didn’t reveal her true identity until later that year, when a nobody named Joseph Liggins started claiming to be—and being taken to be—the author of her books.
This studio portrait, then, is an author photograph taken in advance of the author’s fame—and, I imagine, in preparation for it. And so when I look at it now, I no longer see the discomfort of a woman who did not enjoy being in front of the camera. Instead, I see the smile of a thirty-nine-year-old woman with a delicious secret. I see Eliot, conscious of her own power, quietly satisfied by her accomplishment, sitting for a portrait that was made in obscurity but which was bound, as perhaps she knew, for posterity.
Rebecca Mead’s book “My Life In Middlemarch” will be published in January.
I first encountered this photograph of Tron, a Vietnamese girl who lost part of her right leg to American gunfire, when her story appeared on the cover of Life magazine <http://tinyurl.com/potmt2h> , in November, 1968. I had just turned six and lived in Chicago. I pored over Tron’s story so obsessively that I can still recall some of its details: the fact that she had been picking vegetables when the pilots fired at her, and that, like me, she had a younger brother and was learning (with a new prosthetic leg, in her case) to ride a bike. So radically did I identify with this twelve-year-old Vietnamese girl that I woke one morning to find my legs stiff and sore, and presumed that I was paralyzed. I crawled frantically around our apartment, howling in fear, until my stepfather pointed out that crawling, in fact, required the use of my legs. Now I think that Tron’s story, and its rich accompanying photos, were my first encounter with journalism and its power to close the distance between people.
When I look at Andreas Gursky’s “99 Cent,” I think, So this is what life was like for all those Baby Ruths and Junior Mints before they became the innards of a thousand plastic pumpkins. Calvin Tomkins wrote, in 2001, that the picture “is a drop-dead gorgeous (and nightmarish) vision of our proliferating trash culture.” Gursky, who comes from Düsseldorf, may very well have seen a wasteland under the fluorescent lights. I see my birthright: Kit Kat, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Rolo, Starburst, Spree, Mr. Goodbar. (Who knew that Mr. Goodbars existed in non-miniature form?) The photograph, for me, is a catechism of American consumerism at its sweetest and most innocent. Squinting at Gursky’s receding rows, I’m surprised and delighted by how many treats I can identify merely by the shapes and colors of their packaging. (“What is the candy in the blue-and-white bag?” “That candy is Almond Joy.”) As much as you can revel in the photograph’s specificity, it is also a masterpiece of abstraction. Put aside the lens of nostalgia, and the sacks of sugar become cells on a television test bar.
Lauren Lancaster’s photograph of a woman sunbathing plunges you into a mystery. The moment you see it, you become a detective, like it or not. Who is that woman? Who is watching her, and from where? Why is she sprawled out on the lounger as though she is waiting to be outlined with a piece of chalk? The picture is sinister and erotic and beautifully composed—Weegee by way of Helmut Newton. Lancaster, who is thirty-five, took the photograph in 2008, at the Park Rotana hotel in Dubai. She has said, “Many people I photographed have a slightly lost expression. It seemed to me that much of the population was just waiting.” A clue, then. The victim of the killing is time.
The two photographs appear to have little in common: the former sold for three million dollars at Christie’s, and the latter is propped up on my mantel. (I fell in love with the swimming pool picture after seeing a slide show of Lancaster’s work; I wrote to her and bought an unsigned print.) However, I think about them together, often when I’m working; they are both testaments to the transformative effect of a perspective shift. The point of view of “99 Cent” is not quite aerial. It seems, instead, to been taken from one of those lifeguard-stand-like platforms where customer-service representatives preside over exchanges and pass judgment on the validity of coupons. From her voyeuristic perch, Lancaster turns what could have been a Dubai grotesque into something much more enigmatic. When I write, I’m thinking of these photographs, grateful for their instruction, and hoping that I can make something big small, or something small big.
I met Yevgeny Khaldei when he was old, struggling through his final years, marooned in a desolate high-rise on the edge of Moscow. Like millions of others, I knew his work: Khaldei, the Soviet Union’s greatest combat photographer, is most famous for his picture of soldiers raising the Soviet flag over Berlin’s burning Reichstag. But Khaldei captured many important moments: he photographed every Soviet leader from Stalin to Yeltsin, and he documented the plight of Shostakovich as he struggled through the Siege of Leningrad. Khaldei, a Jew, (purged twice) photographed other Jews as they were liberated from the ghetto of Budapest. Then he ripped the yellow Stars of David from their chests. His picture of Hermann Göering gives form to the idea of evil.
But of all his photographs, I am most haunted by this stark, desperately beautiful shot, taken on the edge of Murmansk in 1941. Nothing of note is going on; just a platoon of soldiers, marching under the gathering clouds, their ponchos and combat helmets mirrored on the ice. The photograph’s eerie loveliness always makes me think of the darkness that was to come, for Russia and for the rest of the world, and how much of it Khaldei managed to record.
“Judy Linn” (circa 1980s), by Darryl Turner
The memories behind these photographs render me speechless. Purely visual information is rare, so I’m reluctant to introduce verbiage into these photographs, by two contemporary masters, but such is our age. The woman with the hat is named Karen Binns; she is what the late George W. S. Trow might call a “woman with interesting syntax.” A fashion stylist by trade, Karen is her own greatest creation; she is one of the few pieces of art that I’ve ever wanted to live with. The photograph was taken by Judy Linn, who is best known for her portraits of Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. Judy comes at Karen simultaneously at an angle and straight on, like the best kind of conversation. Karen is the equal of the other stars who frequented Judy’s orbit in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, but she is more fascinating to me in many ways, because she is not interested in audience satisfaction but, rather, in self-satisfaction.
The black-and-white image is by Darryl Turner. It is a portrait of Judy Linn. When it comes to picture-making, Darryl and Judy are my heroes; they taught me to look up at buildings, the sky, and the particular rhythms of the day to find the photographs in them. Darryl took this picture some time in the late eighties. It is one of the great images—the late MOMA photography curator John Szarkowski admired it tremendously—because it is a portrait that takes portraiture as its subject. We see and do not see Judy in the frame; she is as visible and invisible as the talent that went into taking the photograph.
By Jessie Wender, The New Yorker Magazine © 2013 Condé Nast.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, a mesmerizing study of stasis and containment, time and domestic anxiety. Stretching its title character’s daily household routine in long, stark takes, Akerman’s film simultaneously allows viewers to experience the materiality of cinema, its literal duration, and gives concrete meaning to a woman’s work. We watch, for three hours and twenty-one minutes, as Jeanne cooks, takes a bath, has dinner with her adolescent son, shops for groceries, and looks for a missing button. Each gesture and sound becomes imprinted in our mind, and as we are lulled by familiar rhythms and expected behavior, we become complicit with Jeanne’s desire for order. The perfect parity between Jeanne’s predictable schedule and Akerman’s minimalist precision deflects our attention from the fleeting signs of Jeanne’s afternoon prostitution. They nevertheless loom at the edge of our mind, gradually building unease. Jeanne Dielmanconstitutes a radical experiment with being undramatic, and paradoxically with the absolute necessity of drama.
Made in 1975, when the artist was only twenty-five years old, the film upped the ante on neorealism’s mandate of “social attention.” Akerman’s real-time, matter-of-fact presentation of a woman’s everyday seemed to mock the timidity of the neorealist demand for “a ninety-minute film showing the life of a man to whom nothing happens.” In postwar film and video, banal kitchen scenes (in Umberto D., 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Semiotics of the Kitchen) are signs of an inclusive realism, a new politicized energy. Akerman’s “images between images,” those scenes neglected in conventional representation, gave this impulse a strong feminist accent. But more than a corrective to traditional cinema, Jeanne Dielman is a lesson in structural economy: the full visibility given to daily tasks exacts, as its cost, the more sensational scenes of Jeanne’s prostitution. These encounters last the time it takes to cook dinner.
Akerman told an interviewer that one night, after having worked on her script for some time, she “saw” the entire film in its “final” form. She then decided to eliminate subplots and subsidiary characters, focusing intensely on Jeanne in her apartment. Aunt Fernande, Jeanne’s sister, living in Canada, only appears in the form of a letter, read in litanylike monotone by Jeanne to her son; the neighbor, heard by the door (and played by Akerman herself), describes how, shopping for her husband’s dinner, and still undecided, she ended up getting the same expensive cut of meat as the person in front of her on line. Never casual, each of the film’s uniquely strange and long-winded monologues expresses some form of gendered pressure: they refer to Jeanne’s marriage, the son’s Oedipal thoughts, each breathing a sexual anxiety, each a drawn-out, wordy attempt to mitigate the “other scene” we never see, the elided afternoon trysts.
These were impressively mature themes and stylistic strategies for such a young director, and it was not the first time she had worked with them. The entropic contamination of domesticity and tragedy, order and disorder, was a central Akerman idea from her very first film, Saute ma ville(1968), in which a deadpan, eighteen-year-old Akerman herself performs in a tight kitchen space, cleaning, making a mess, cooking, sealing the door and window—a compressed, chaoticJeanne Dielman and a precocious, explosive debut. Born in Belgium in 1950, of Jewish parents who left Poland to escape Nazism, Akerman was an autodidact who quickly abandoned film school and worked selling diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange to raise money to make Saute ma ville. New York, where she lived from 1971 to 1972, was a formative experience. She frequented Anthology Film Archives, was exposed to minimalist dance, Andy Warhol’s long-duration films, Jonas Mekas’s diary films, and other structural filmmakers. She has mentioned being particularly impressed with Michael Snow’s La région centrale, a film whose random camera movements over a humanless landscape “opened [my] mind to the relationship between film and your body, time as the most important thing in film.” In 1972, while in New York, she initiated her long collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Babette Mangolte, with whom she made La chambre (1972), Hôtel Monterey (1972), Hanging Out Yonkers (1973), and News from Home (1977). In these films, Akerman’s fixed camera provokes unexpected performances. In La chambre, the camera makes a 360-degree pan around a small studio, meeting with equal interest a chair, a bed, Chantal eating an apple, rocking under the covers. Under the camera’s long stare, even the empty corridor in Hôtel Monterey starts to “perform”—it will be seen in depth as a corridor, or in foreground as a surface of lines and masses. A room with a door ajar lets us see a pregnant woman sitting, hinting at a story. What Akerman learned from Hôtel Monterey was that the shot duration changes the equation between the concrete and the abstract, between drama and descriptive detail.
Her narrative films apply this structuralist lesson, fashioning expectation out of a series of real-time, nondramatic shots. In terms of performance, she is indebted to Bresson’s flat models and Dreyer’s nonpsychological austerity: her characters speak in recitative monologues intercut by long silences. Channeling the memory of chants heard at the synagogue into her modernist art, Akerman has said that what “interests me in dialogue is that it rounds up with rhythm, a psalmody where the sentences don’t make sense.” Infused with her fondness for rituals—domestic, Jewish—her lines accrue meaning nevertheless.
Akerman met her actress for Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig (the star of Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and India Song), in 1974, at the Nancy Theatre Festival, where Hôtel Monterey was being shown. That same year, she made Je, tu, il, elle, a film that importantly precedes Jeanne Dielman’s provocative crossing of the line between literal and acted scenes. Akerman boldly decided to appear in this film, using her own malaise to cut against what she felt was her overrigid form. Closer to performance art than to cinema, her obsessive gestures corrode the lines between acting, living, and creating. The film ends with an explicit yet stylized sex scene between two women. Amplified sounds and high-definition images would become a trademark of Akerman’s starkly presentational mise-en-scène (she shares with fellow seventies directors Fassbinder and Oshima a frontal, heightened approach to filming bodies).
In Jeanne Dielman, the camera is fixed and low (matching the filmmaker’s short height), and the frame composition is frontal and symmetrical. Akerman does not use close-ups, reverse angles, or point-of-view shots. She avoids cutting “this woman in pieces” and is “never voyeuristic,” she has explained, addressing the more feminist aspects of her project; one “always knows where I am.” Mangolte’s precise re-creation of light traversing an apartment through the day, and Seyrig’s contained portrayal, complement the director’s formal clarity.
Almost classical in its construction, Jeanne Dielman works like a time bomb. The Flemish color palette of Akerman’s interiors, the linearity of the story, with the first-, second-, and third-day intertitles, all work to associate her with the mild disjunctions of European art cinema. And yet the acuity and amplified concreteness of her images creates a visible instability: as the shot goes on, the viewer becomes aware of his/her own body, restless and then again interested. After “reading” the image of a woman washing dishes, one’s attention starts to wander to tiles, to colors, to a rag.
This perceptual oscillation adds to the film’s pervasive disquiet. Jeanne’s need for control, exemplified by her fixed schedule and menu, covers an anxious dread of autonomy, with clear sexual undertones. In its structural delineation of a link between two prescribed female roles—domestic and sexual, the mother and the whore—the film engages broadly with a feminist problematic, one that takes into account also a woman’s alienation, her labor, and her dormant violence. Jeanne’s son, for instance, the only “man” in the house besides her clients, expects to be served and controls his mother: “You missed a button,” he says at one point. And yet Akerman’s unerring sensibility for behavior pushes the film beyond a thesislike statement. When Jeanne sits on the mustard armchair, not knowing how to fill up her time, the anxiety is palpable. She briefly touches her chest, her heart. She compulsively, thriftily turns off lights before leaving a room, and with this simple gesture she separates one domestic space from the other, kitchen from bedroom. It is with this delicate attention to detail, in the restricted sphere of a woman’s domain (the address announced in the title), that Akerman tells her tale about displaced sexuality.
What is familiar and domestic, the film reveals as strange. In public appearances, the filmmaker has often discarded any direct equation of Jeanne’s quotidian chores with “a woman’s repression under patriarchy,” explaining that these were the loving gestures she was familiar with as she observed intently her mother and aunt making a bed, preparing food. Despite this statement, protective of her own familiar memories, in the film Akerman insists on a haunting contamination of scene by ob-scene.
Halfway into the film, at the end of the second day, when we have become used to Jeanne’s (and Akerman’s) routine, something happens. Perhaps it is when Jeanne places the money the john gave her into the tureen and forgets to cover it with the lid. At any rate, some spectators might notice Jeanne’s disheveled hair, while others might notice, as she does, that the potatoes have overcooked. We see Jeanne from the kitchen as she appears by its door, and this first shift in the camera’s habitual position announces the character’s unraveling. In one of the funniest choreographies ever of domestic terror, Jeanne carries the pot around the house, not knowing what to do with this evidence of mistiming. In a didactic exposure of the fragility of order, Akerman’s frame remains the same when a fork falls, dishes remain unwashed, and a shoe brush drops. No cutaway or musical score highlights the disturbance. This intrusion of objects “moving on their own” gives plastic shape to the unwelcome, recurring thoughts that Jeanne, an obsessive-compulsive, attempts to suppress. Time is clearly the culprit. See the wonderful scene in which Jeanne’s coffee tastes bad. She will try all possible remedies: She changes the milk, and even caps the process with a ritual of symmetry, combining two lumps of sugar into a rectangle. She pours the coffee into the Melitta filter and waits. Still, shaped like an irreversible hourglass, the filter will not correct what has gone wrong.
Jeanne Dielman’s double ending represents the link between containment and excess, between sexual repression and violence. With impeccable narrative logic, we see for the first time what has been kept offscreen. After having an orgasm with a client, Jeanne gets dressed, tucks her shirt into her skirt, picks up a pair of scissors, and stabs the man. With this downplayed “climax,” Akerman equates the banal and the dramatic, the literal and the fictional—dressing and killing. “When she bangs the glass on the table and you think the milk might spill, that’s as dramatic as the murder,” stated Akerman. The film’s last seven minutes show Jeanne sitting at the dinner table, a flickering neon light striating her face. This unforgettable image of the character/the actress breathing, simply existing, resumes the filmmaker’s contract with her character’s desire for stasis.
When it came out, Jeanne Dielman was fully in tune with the European women’s movement—“Peeling Potatoes” was one of the articles in an issue of Les temps modernes edited by Simone de Beauvoir, and in Belgium the working rights of prostitutes were the subject of lively debate. The film’s rigorous alignment of sexual/gender politics with a formal economy—showing cooking and hiding sex—was hailed by feminist critics as an impressive alternative to well-intentioned but conventional political documentaries and features. And many in the avant-garde felt vindicated that this narrative topically addressing women’s issues was so plainly indebted to pure experiments with duration and series. Akerman’s representation of a concrete, defamiliarized everyday was a defining feat.
Despite their apparent simplicity, Akerman’s assured framing and narrative, built out of blocks of real time intercut by radical ellipses, are not easily replicated. Rather, the film’s impact is indirectly evident in the emergence of a new phenomenological sensibility and approach to observation and the weight of time in the work of contemporary filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami, Gus van Sant, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Todd Haynes, Jia Zhangke, and Tsai Ming-liang.
After Jeanne Dielman, Akerman has said, she felt she had to escape her own mastery, to avoid repeating herself. In the eighties, as a natural outgrowth of her interest in the rhythm of gesture and dialogue, she turned to farces, musicals, and comedies as pretexts for more exuberant and fast-paced tempos: Toute une nuit (1982), The Eighties (1983), I’m Hungry, I’m Cold (1984),Window Shopping (1986), Night and Day (1991). Her unclassifiable narratives News from Homeand American Stories: Food, Family and Philosophy (1988) layer minor literary forms—her mother’s letters, immigrant letters, Jewish jokes—over a redesigned promised land, New York. Still other films haunt us with their characters’ opaque resistance to being possessed or pinned down. In two of her features, Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) and La captive (2000), the female protagonists express their singularity by their amateur, “out-of-tune” singing. Across a wide range of modes and media, Akerman’s most remarkable gift lies in her work’s elastic and transformative temporality: an overextended scene turns boredom into obstinate passion; watched for long enough, her documentary landscapes yield uncanny feelings of déjà vu; compressed and rhythmic, her language turns in on itself, funny, musical; everyday gestures are redesigned, attaining a ceremonial, memorable intensity.
We get a glimpse of the quality of Akerman’s attentiveness and patience in Autour de “Jeanne Dielman,” a behind-the-scenes video by actor Sami Frey. Seyrig discusses her character’s feelings with Akerman, who firmly insists she does not want a performance based on psychology. Brushing one’s hair, making a meat loaf, and anxiety are all submitted to Akerman’s detailed script and exacting vision. Small and precise movements are the norm. Mangolte suggests the camera stay on the “empty scene” so that Jeanne’s actions out of frame—going to check the time, placing something in the refrigerator—actually happen. Amid practical deliberations, such as how many eggs go into a meat loaf, the secret of Akerman’s timing is stunningly revealed in a simple rehearsal moment. Seyrig sits in profile by the kitchen table while Akerman, script and watch in hand, describes Jeanne’s moves. Seyrig follows the directions. “You wait for a minute, you stand up, go to the balcony, wait for twenty-five seconds, come back, pick up the broom, and sit back down. You skim the stock and sit.” Seyrig sits. Mirroring her, elbow at the table, Akerman sits and waits. For the longest minute, the director lets Seyrig and Jeanne’s time pass through her own body. It is this experience she relays to us, gently and surely.
By Ivone Margulies
Ivone Margulies is the author of Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday.She teaches in the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York. A film scholar and critic, she writes on realism, performance, and theatricality in cinema.
I did not grow up with a Norman Rockwell poster hanging in my bedroom. I grew up gazing at a Helen Frankenthaler poster, with bright, runny rivulets of orange and yellow bordering a rectangle whose center remained daringly blank. As an art history major, and later as an art critic, I was among a generation that was taught to think of modern art as a kind of luminous, cleanly swept room. Abstract painting, our professors said, jettisoned the accumulated clutter of 500 years of subject matter in an attempt to reduce art to pure form.
Rockwell? Oh God. He was viewed as a cornball and a square, a convenient symbol of the bourgeois values Modernism sought to topple. His long career overlapped with the key art movements of the 20th century, from Cubism to Minimalism, but while most avant-gardists were heading down a one-way street toward formal reduction, Rockwell was driving in the opposite direction—he was putting stuff into art. His paintings have human figures and storytelling, snoozing mutts, grandmothers, clear-skinned Boy Scouts and wood-paneled station wagons. They have policemen, attics and floral wallpaper. Moreover, most of them began life as covers for the Saturday Evening Post, a weekly general-interest magazine that paid Rockwell for his work, and paychecks, frankly, were another Modernist no-no. Real artists were supposed to live hand-to-mouth, preferably in walk-up apartments in Greenwich Village.
The scathing condescension directed at Rockwell during his lifetime eventually made him a prime candidate for revisionist therapy, which is to say, an art-world hug. He received one posthumously, in the fall of 2001, when Robert Rosenblum, the brilliant Picasso scholar and art-world contrarian in chief, presided over a Rockwell exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It represented a historic collision between mass taste and museum taste, filling the pristine spiral of the Gugg with Rockwell’s plebeian characters, the barefoot country boys and skinny geezers with sunken cheeks and Rosie the Riveter sitting triumphantly on a crate, savoring her white-bread sandwich.
The great subject of his work was American life—not the frontier version, with its questing for freedom and romance, but a homelier version steeped in the we-the-people, communitarian ideals of America’s founding in the 18th century. The people in his paintings are related less by blood than by their participation in civic rituals, from voting on Election Day to sipping a soda at a drugstore counter.
Because America was a nation of immigrants who lacked universally shared traditions, it had to invent some. So it came up with Thanksgiving, baseball—and Norman Rockwell.
Who was Rockwell? A lean, bluish man with a Dunhill pipe, his features arranged into a gentle mask of neighborliness. But behind the mask lay anxiety and fear of his anxiety. On most days, he felt lonesome and loveless. His relationships with his parents, wives and three sons were uneasy, sometimes to the point of estrangement. He eschewed organized activity. He declined to go to church.
Although Rockwell is often described as a portrayer of the nuclear family, this is a misconception. Of his 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, only three portray a conventional family of parents and two or more children (Going and Coming, 1947; Walking to Church, 1953; and Easter Morning, 1959). Rockwell culled the majority of his figures from an imaginary assembly of boys and fathers and grandfathers who convene in places where women seldom intrude. Boyishness is presented in his work as a desirable quality, even in girls. Rockwell’s female figures tend to break from traditional gender roles and assume masculine guises. Typically, a redheaded girl with a black eye sits in the hall outside the principal’s office, grinning despite the reprimand awaiting her.
Although he married three times and raised a family, Rockwell acknowledged that he didn’t pine for women. They made him feel imperiled. He preferred the nearly constant companionship of men whom he perceived as physically strong. He sought out friends who went fishing in the wilderness and trekked up mountains, men with mud on their shoes, daredevils who were not prim and careful the way he was. “It may have represented Rockwell’s solution to the problem of feeling wimpish and small,” maintains Sue Erikson Bloland, a psychotherapist and the daughter of pioneering psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whom Rockwell consulted in the 1950s. “He had a desire to connect with other men and partake of their masculinity, because of a sense of deficiency in himself.”
Revealingly, his earliest known work portrays an elderly man ministering to a bedridden boy. The charcoal drawing has never been reproduced until now. Rockwell was 17 years old when he made it, and for years it languished in storage at the Art Students League, which had purchased it from the artist when he was a student there. Consequently, the drawing was spared the fate of innumerable early Rockwells that were lost over the years or destroyed in a disastrous fire that consumed one of his barn-studios in later life.
Not long ago, I contacted the League to ask if it still owned the drawing and how I could see it; it was arranged that the work would be driven into Manhattan from a New Jersey warehouse. It was incredible to see—a marvel of precocious draftsmanship and a shockingly macabre work for an artist known for his folksy humor. Rockwell undertook it as a class assignment. Technically, it’s an illustration of a scene from “The Deserted Village,” the 18th-century pastoral poem by Oliver Goldsmith. It takes you into a small, tenebrous, candlelit room where a sick boy lies supine in bed, a sheet pulled up to his chin. A village preacher, shown from the back in his long coat and white wig, kneels at the boy’s side. A grandfather clock looms dramatically in the center of the composition, infusing the scene with a time-is-ticking ominousness. Perhaps taking his cue from Rembrandt, Rockwell is able to extract great pictorial drama from the play of candlelight on the back wall of the room, a glimpse of radiance in the unreachable distance.
Rockwell had been taught in Thomas Fogarty’s illustration class that pictures are “the servant of text.” But here he breaks that rule. Traditionally, illustrations for “The Deserted Village” have emphasized the theme of exodus, portraying men and women driven out of an idyllic, tree-laden English landscape. But Rockwell moved his scene indoors and chose to capture a moment of tenderness between an older man and a young man, even though no such scene is described in the poem.
Put another way, Rockwell was able to do the double duty of fulfilling the requirements of illustration while staying true to his emotional instincts. The thrill of his work is that he was able to use a commercial form to work out his private obsessions.
Rockwell, who was born in New York City in 1894, the son of a textile salesman, attributed much about his life and his work to his underwhelming physique. As a child he felt overshadowed by his older brother, Jarvis, a first-rate student and athlete. Norman, by contrast, was slight and pigeon-toed and squinted at the world through owlish glasses. His grades were barely passing and he struggled with reading and writing—today, he surely would be labeled dyslexic. Growing up in an era when boys were still judged largely by their body type and athletic prowess, he felt, he once wrote, like “a lump, a long skinny nothing, a bean pole without beans.”
It did not help that he grew up at a time when the male body—as much as the mind—had come to be viewed as something to be improved and expanded. President Theodore Roosevelt himself was an advocate of body modification. Much of Rockwell’s childhood (ages 7 to 15) took place during the daunting athleticism of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. He was the president who had transformed his sickly, asthmatic body into a muscular one, the naturalist president who hiked for miles and hunted big game. In the T.R. era, the well-developed male body became a kind of physical analogue to America’s expansionist, big-stick foreign policy. To be a good American was to build your deltoids and acquire a powerful chest.
Rockwell tried exercising, hoping for a transformation. In the mornings, he diligently did push-ups. But the body he espied in the mirror—the pale face, the narrow shoulders and spaghetti arms—continued to strike him as wholly unappealing.
In 1914, Rockwell and his parents settled in a boardinghouse in New Rochelle, New York, which was then a veritable art colony. The Golden Age of Illustration was at its peak and New Rochelle’s elite included J.C. Leyendecker, the star cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post. There was more new art by American artists to be found in magazines than there was on the walls of museums.
Rockwell wanted mainly one thing. He wanted to get into the Saturday Evening Post, a Philadelphia-based weekly and the largest-circulation magazine in the country. It didn’t come out on Saturdays, but on Thursdays. No one waited until the weekend to open it. Husbands and wives and precocious children vied to get hold of the latest issue in much the same way that future generations would vie over access to the household telephone or the remote control.
Rockwell’s first cover for the Post, for which he was paid a whopping $75, appeared in the May 20, 1916, issue. It remains one of his most psychologically intense works. A boy who appears to be about 13 is taking his infant sister out for some fresh air when he bumps into two friends. The boy is mortified to be witnessed pushing a baby carriage. While his friends are clad in baseball uniforms and heading off to a game, the baby-sitting boy is dressed formally, complete with a starched collar, bowler hat and leather gloves. His eyes are averted and almost downcast as he hurries along, as if it were possible to physically escape the mocking gaze of his tormentors.
Rockwell became an immediate sensation, and his work began appearing on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post about once a month, as often as his hero and neighbor J.C. Leyendecker. The two illustrators eventually became close friends. Rockwell spent many pleasant evenings at Leyendecker’s hilltop mansion, an eccentric household that included Leyendecker’s illustrator-brother, Frank; his sister, Augusta; and J.C.’s male lover, Charles Beach. Journalists who interviewed Rockwell at his studio in New Rochelle were charmed by his boyish appearance and abundant modesty. He would invariably respond to compliments by knocking on wood and claiming that his career was about to collapse. Asked about his artistic gifts, he brushed them off, explaining, “I agree with Thomas Edison when he says that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
By the time his first Post cover had appeared, Rockwell had impulsively proposed marriage to Irene O’Connor, an Irish-Catholic schoolteacher whom he met at the boardinghouse in New Rochelle. “After we’d been married awhile I realized that she didn’t love me,” Rockwell later wrote. He never seemed to flip the question and contemplate whether or not he loved her. The marriage, which produced no children, somehow lasted nearly 14 years. Irene filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada, a few months after the Great Crash.
Rockwell wasted no time in picking a second wife. He was visiting Los Angeles when he met 22-year-old Mary Barstow at the home of dear friend Clyde Forsythe, a cartoonist and landscape painter. Mary, who smoked Lucky Strikes and had frizzy hair, had graduated from Stanford the previous spring in the class of 1929. He had known her for exactly two weeks when he asked her to marry him. On March 19, 1930, they applied for a marriage license at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. He gave his age as 33, chopping off three years, perhaps because he could not imagine why a fetching woman like Mary Barstow would want to marry an aging, panic-stricken divorcé.
For the next decade, he and Mary lived in a handsome white Colonial in New Rochelle, a suburb in which a certain kind of life is supposed to unfold. But within the first year of their marriage, she began to feel excluded from her husband’s company. He derived something intangible from his assistant Fred Hildebrandt that she could not provide. Fred, a young artist in New Rochelle who earned his living modeling for illustrators, was attractive in a dramatic way, tall and slim, his luxuriant blond hair combed straight back. In 1930, Rockwell hired Hildebrandt to run his studio, which required that he help with tasks from building stretchers to answering the phone to sitting on a hardwood chair for hours, holding a pose.
By 1933, Rockwell had become the father of two sons, Jarvis, a future artist, and Thomas, a future writer. (The youngest, Peter, a future sculptor, would arrive in 1936.) But Rockwell was grappling with the suspicion that he did not feel any more attracted to his second wife than he had to his first. He still cultivated close relationships with men outside his family. In September 1934, he and Fred Hildebrandt headed off on a two-week fishing expedition in the wilds of Canada. Rockwell kept a diary on the trip, and it records in detail the affection he felt for his friend. On September 6, Rockwell was delighted to wake up in the cold air and spot him lounging around in a new outfit. “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels,” he notes appreciatively.
That night, he and Fred played gin rummy until 11, sitting by the stove in the cabin and using a deck of cards that Rockwell had made himself. “Then Fred and I get into one very narrow bed,” he noted, referring to a rustic cot made from a hard board and a sprinkling of fir branches. The guides climbed into a bed above them, and “all during the night pine needles spray us as they drop from the guides’ bed.”
Was Rockwell gay, whether closeted or otherwise? In researching and writing this biography over the past decade, I found myself asking the question repeatedly.
Granted, he married three times, but his marriages were largely unsatisfactory. The great romance for Rockwell, to my mind, lay in his friendships with men, from whom he received something that was probably deeper than sex.
In the fall of 1938, Rockwell and Mary bought a farmhouse set on 60 acres in southern Vermont. Rockwell learned about the village of Arlington from Hildebrandt, who fished there every spring. Eager to reinvent his art by finding new models and subjects, he left New Rochelle and became a proud New Englander. However, unlike the archetypical Vermonters whom he would portray in his paintings—people who savor long afternoons on front porches—Rockwell didn’t have ten seconds to spare. A nervous man, he drank Coca-Cola for breakfast, was afflicted with backaches and coughs, and declined to swim in the Battenkill River flowing through his front yard, insisting that the water was too cold.
Nonetheless, the change of scenery served him well. It was in Vermont that Rockwell began using his neighbors as models and telling stories about everyday life that visualized something essential about the country. New England was, of course, the site of the American Revolution, and it was here, during World War II, that Rockwell would articulate the country’s democratic ideals anew, especially in the series of paintings that took their theme from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Rockwell originally offered to do the paintings as war posters for the U.S. government’s Office of War Information. But on a summer afternoon in 1942 when he headed down to Arlington, Virginia, and met with OWI officials, he received a painful snub. An official declined to take a look at the studies he had brought with him, saying the government planned to use “fine arts men, real artists.”
Indeed, in coming months, Archibald MacLeish, the poet and assistant director of the agency, instead reached out to modern artists who he believed could lend some artistic prestige to the war effort. They included Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Marc Chagall and even Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who, as a native of Japan, might then have seemed an unlikely choice for American war posters. Rockwell, in the meantime, spent the next seven months in a state of jittery exhaustion as he proceeded to create his Four Freedoms—not for the government, but for the Saturday Evening Post.
The best painting in the series is probably Freedom from Want. It takes you into the dining room of a comfortable American home on Thanksgiving Day. The guests are seated at a long table, and no one is glancing at the massive roasted turkey or the gray-haired grandma solemnly carrying it—do they even know she is there? Note the man in the lower right corner, whose wry face is pressed up against the picture plane. He has the air of a larksome uncle who perhaps is visiting from New York and doesn’t entirely buy into the rituals of Thanksgiving. He seems to be saying, “Isn’t this all just a bit much?” In contrast to traditional depictions of Thanksgiving dinner, which show the pre-meal as a moment of grace—heads lowered, praying hands raised to lips—Rockwell paints a Thanksgiving table at which no one is giving thanks. This, then, is the subject of his painting: not just the sanctity of American traditions, but the casualness with which Americans treat them.
The Four Freedoms—Freedom from Want, along with Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship and Freedom from Fear—were published in four consecutive issues of the Post, starting on February 20, 1943, and they were instantly beloved. The Office of War Information quickly realized it had made an embarrassing mistake by rejecting them. It managed to fix the error: The OWI now arranged to print some 2.5 million Four Freedom posters and make the four original paintings the stellar centerpiece of a traveling war-bond sales campaign.
Rockwell’s Four Freedoms did not attempt to explain the war—the battles or the bloodshed, the dead and injured, the obliteration of towns. But the war wasn’t just about killing the enemy. It was also about saving a way of life. The paintings tapped into a world that seemed recognizable and real. Most everyone knew what it was like to attend a town meeting or say a prayer, to observe Thanksgiving or look in on sleeping children.
As Rockwell’s career flourished, Mary suffered the neglect that has befallen so many wives of artists, and she turned to alcohol for solace. Thinking he needed to be away from her, Rockwell headed to Southern California by himself in the fall of 1948. He spent a few months living out of a suitcase at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood as his wife lingered in snowbound Vermont, lighting cigarettes and stubbing them out in heavy ashtrays. That was the year that Christmas Homecoming, the defining image of toasty holiday togetherness, graced the cover of the Post. It is the only painting in which all five members of the Rockwell family appear. A Christmas-day gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a son (Jarvis), whose back is turned toward the viewer. He receives a joyous hug from his mother (Mary Rockwell) as a roomful of relatives and friends look on with visible delight. In reality, there was no family gathering for the Rockwells that Christmas, only distance and discontent.
In 1951, Mary Rockwell turned for help to the Austen Riggs Center, a small psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that catered to patients who could afford months and even years of care. She was treated by Dr. Robert Knight, the center’s medical director. In coming months, while Mary was an inpatient at Riggs, Rockwell spoke regularly with Dr. Knight to discuss her progress. Through his conversations with the doctor, he became aware of mood-lifting drugs and ways to tackle his own depression. He started taking Dexamyl, a small green pill of the combination sort, half dexedrine, half barbiturate, wholly addictive.
So too, he became interested in entering therapy himself. Dr. Knight referred him to an analyst on his staff: Erik Erikson, a German émigré who had been an artist in his wandering youth and was one of the most highly regarded psychoanalysts in the country. Rockwell’s bookkeeper remembers an afternoon when the artist casually mentioned that he was thinking of relocating to Stockbridge for the winter. By Monday, Rockwell had moved, and in fact would never return to Arlington, except to sell his house a year later.
Settling in Stockbridge, in October 1953, Rockwell acquired a studio right on Main Street, one flight above a meat market. The Austen Riggs Center was practically across the street, and Rockwell went there twice a week to meet with Erikson. Much of what Erikson did in the therapeutic hour resembled counseling, as opposed to analysis. For Rockwell, the immediate crisis was his marriage. He bemoaned his shared life with an alcoholic whose drinking, he said, made her petulant and critical of his work. Rockwell was a dependent man who tended to lean on men, and in Erikson he found reliable support. “All that I am, all that I hope to be, I owe to Mr. Erikson,” he once wrote.
Rockwell was still prone to extreme nervousness and even panic attacks. In May 1955, invited to dine at the White House, at the invitation of President Eisenhower, he flew down to Washington with a Dexamyl in his jacket pocket. He was worried he’d be tongue-tied at the “stag party,” whose guests, including Leonard Firestone of rubber-tire fame and Doubleday editor in chief Ken McCormick, were the sort of self-made, influential businessmen whose conversation Eisenhower preferred to that of politicians. The story Rockwell told about that evening goes as follows: Before dinner, standing in the bathroom of his room at the Statler Hotel, he accidentally dropped his Dexamyl pill in the sink. To his dismay, it rolled down the sink, forcing him to face the president and sup on oxtail soup, roast beef and lime sherbet ring in an anxiously unmedicated state.
By now he had been an illustrator for four decades, and he continued to favor scenes culled from everyday life. In Stockbridge, he found his younger models at the school near his house. Escorted by the principal, he would peer into classrooms, in search of boys with the right allotment of freckles, the right expression of openness. “He would come during our lunch hour and pull you into the hall,” recalled Eddie Locke, who first modeled for Rockwell as an 8-year-old. Locke is among the few who can claim the distinction of “posing somewhat in the nude,” as the Saturday Evening Post reported in a bizarrely sanguine item on March 15, 1958.
The comment refers to Before the Shot, which takes us into a doctor’s office as a boy stands on a wooden chair, his belt unfastened, his corduroy trousers lowered to reveal his pale backside. As he worriedly awaits an injection, he bends over, ostensibly to scrutinize the framed diploma hanging on the wall and reassure himself that the doctor is sufficiently qualified to perform this delicate procedure. (That’s the joke.)
Before the Shot remains the only Rockwell cover in which a boy exposes his unclad rear. Locke recalls posing for the picture in a doctor’s office on an afternoon when the doctor was gone. Rockwell asked the boy to drop his pants and had his photographer take the pictures. “He instructed me to pose how he wanted it,” Locke recalled. “It was a little uncomfortable, but you just did it, that’s all.”
One night, Rockwell surprised the boy’s family by stopping by their house unannounced. He was carrying the finished painting and apparently needed to do a bit more research. “He asked for the pants,” Locke recalled years later. “This is what my parents told me. He asked for the pants to see if he had gotten the color right. They’re kind of a grey-green.” It’s an anecdote that reminds you of both his fastidious realism and the sensuality he attached to fabric and clothing.
In August 1959, Mary Rockwell died suddenly, never waking up from an afternoon nap. Her death certificate lists the cause as “coronary heart disease.” Her friends and acquaintances wondered whether Mary, who was 51, had taken her own life. At Rockwell’s request, no autopsy was performed; the quantity of drugs in her bloodstream remains unknown. Rockwell spoke little about his wife in the weeks and months following her death. After three turbulent decades of marriage, Mary had been eradicated from his life without warning. “He didn’t talk about his feelings,” recalled his son Peter. “He did some of his best work during that period. He did some fabulous paintings. I think we were all relieved by her death.”
The summer of 1960 arrived, and Senator John F. Kennedy was anointed by the Democratic National Convention as its candidate. Rockwell had already begun his portrait of him and visited the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. At the time, Kennedy’s advisers were concerned that the 43-year-old candidate was too young to seek the office of the presidency. He implored Rockwell, in his portrait for the cover of the Post, to make him look “at least” his age. Rockwell was charmed by the senator, believing there was already a golden aura about him.
Rockwell had also met with the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon. As much as he admired President Eisenhower, Rockwell did not care for his vice president. In his studio, he worked on the portraits of Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon side by side. Scrupulously objective, he made sure that neither candidate flashed a millimeter more of a smile than the other. It was tedious work, not least because Nixon’s face posed unique challenges. As Peter Rockwell recalled, “My father said the problem with doing Nixon is that if you make him look nice, he doesn’t look like Nixon anymore.”
In January 1961, Kennedy was inaugurated, and Rockwell, a widower living in a drafty house with his dog Pitter, listened to the ceremony on his radio. For several months, Erik Erikson had been exhorting him to join a group and get out of the house. Rockwell signed up for “Discovering Modern Poetry,” which met weekly at the Lenox Library. The spring term started that March. The group leader, Molly Punderson, had clear blue eyes and wore her white hair pinned up in a bun. A former English teacher at the Milton Academy Girls’ School, she had recently retired and moved back to her native Stockbridge. Her great ambition was to write a grammar book. Molly knew a class clown when she saw one. “He was no great student,” she recalled of Rockwell. “He skipped classes, made amusing remarks, and livened up the sessions.”
At last Rockwell had found his feminine ideal: an older schoolteacher who had never lived with a man, and who in fact had lived with a female history teacher in a so-called Boston marriage for decades. When Molly moved into Rockwell’s home, she set up her bedroom in a small room across the hall from his. However unconventional the arrangement, and despite the apparent absence of sexual feeling, their relationship flourished. She satisfied his desire for intelligent companionship and required little in return. Once, asked by an interviewer to name the woman she most admired, she cited Jane Austen, explaining: “She contented herself with wherever she found herself.”
They were married on a crisp fall day, in October 1961, at St. Paul’s Church in Stockbridge. Molly arrived in Rockwell’s life in time to help him endure his final moments at the Post. He hinted at his fear of decline and obsolescence in his 1961 masterpiece, The Connoisseur. The painting takes us inside an art museum, where an older gentleman is shown from the back as he holds his fedora in his hand and contemplates a “drip” painting by Jackson Pollock. He’s a mystery man whose face remains hidden and whose thoughts are not available to us. Perhaps he is a stand-in for Rockwell, contemplating not only an abstract painting, but the inevitable generational change that will lead to his own extinction. Rockwell had nothing against the Abstract Expressionists. “If I were young, I would paint that way myself,” he said in a brief note that ran inside the magazine.
For decades, millions of Americans had looked forward to taking in the mail and finding a Rockwell cover. But starting in the ’60s, when the Post arrived, subscribers were more likely to find a color photograph of Elizabeth Taylor in emphatic eyeliner, decked out for her role in the film Cleopatra. The emphasis on the common man central to America’s sense of self in 20th-century America gave way, in the television-centered 1960s, to the worship of celebrities, whose life stories and marital crises replaced those of the proverbial next-door neighbor as subjects of interest and gossip.
Rockwell was aghast when his editors asked him to give up his genre scenes and start painting portraits of world leaders and celebrities. In September 1963, when the Post’s new art editor, Asger Jerrild, contacted Rockwell about illustrating an article, the artist wrote back: “I have come to the conviction that the work I now want to do no longer fits into the Post scheme.” It was, in effect, Rockwell’s letter of resignation.
On December 14, 1963, the Saturday Evening Post put out a memorial issue to honor a slain president. While other magazines ran grisly photographs of the assassination, the Post went with an illustration—it reprinted the Rockwell portrait of JFK that had run in 1960, before he was elected president. There he was again, with his blue eyes and thick hair and boyish Kennedy grin that seemed to promise that all would be well in America.
At the age of 69, Rockwell began working for Look magazine and entered a remarkable phase of his career, one devoted to championing the civil rights movement. Although he had been a moderate Republican in the ’30s and ’40s, he shifted to the left as he grew older; he was especially sympathetic to the nuclear disarmament movement that flourished in the late ’50s. Leaving the conservative Post was liberating for him. He began to treat his art as a vehicle for progressive politics. President Johnson had taken up the cause of civil rights. Rockwell, too, would help drive the Kennedy agenda forward. You might say he became its premier if unofficial illustrator.
Rockwell’s first illustration for Look magazine, The Problem We All Live With, was a two-page spread that appeared in January 1964. An African-American girl—a 6-year-old in a white dress, a matching bow in her hair—is walking to school, escorted by four badge-wearing officers in lock step. Ruby Bridges, as most everyone now knows, was the first African-American to attend the all-white William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, as a result of court-ordered desegregation. And Rockwell’s painting chronicled that famous day. On the morning of November 14, 1960, federal marshals dispatched by the U.S. Justice Department drove Ruby and her mother to her new school, only five blocks from their house. She had to walk by a crowd of crazy hecklers outside the school, most of them housewives and teenagers. She did this every day for weeks, and then the weeks became months.
It is interesting to compare Rockwell’s painting with the wire-service photographs on which it was loosely based. Even when he was depicting an event out of the headlines, Rockwell was not transcribing a scene but inventing one. To capture the problem of racism, he created a defaced stucco wall. It’s inscribed with a slur (“nigger”) and the initials KKK, the creepiest monogram in American history.
Many subscribers to the magazine, especially those who lived in the South, wrote furious letters to Look. But over time The Problem We All Live With would come to be recognized as a defining image of the civil rights movement in this country. Its influence was profound. Ruby would reappear in many guises in American culture, even in musical comedy. “That painting he did about the little black girl walking—that’s in Hairspray,” recalled John Waters, the director and writer of the film. “That inspired L’il Inez in Hairspray.” L’il Inez is the charismatic African-American girl in Baltimore who helps break down racial barriers by being the best dancer in town.
One afternoon in July 1968, Rockwell answered the phone in his studio and heard the voice at the other end talking intently about mounting a show of his work. He was taken by surprise and assumed the caller had confused him with the painter Rockwell Kent. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I think you have the wrong artist.” The next morning, Bernie Danenberg, a young art dealer who was just opening a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, drove up to Stockbridge. He convinced Rockwell to agree to an exhibition at his gallery—the first major show of Rockwell’s work in New York.
The opening reception was held at Danenberg’s on October 21, 1968. Dressed in his customary tweedy jacket, with a plaid bow tie, Rockwell arrived at the reception half an hour late and, by most accounts, felt embarrassed by the fuss. The show, which stayed up for three weeks, was ignored by most art critics, including those from the New York Times. But artists who had never thought about Rockwell now found much to admire. Willem de Kooning, who was then in his mid-60s and acclaimed as the country’s leading abstract painter, dropped by the show unannounced. Danenberg recalled that he especially admired Rockwell’s Connoisseur, the one in which an elderly gentleman contemplates a Pollock drip painting. “Square inch by square inch,” de Kooning announced in his accented English, “it’s better than Jackson!” Hard to know if the comment was intended to elevate Rockwell or demote Pollock.
With the rise of Pop Art, Rockwell was suddenly in line with a younger generation of painters whose work had much in common with his—the Pop artists had returned realism to avant-garde art after the half-century reign of abstraction. Warhol, too, came in to see the gallery show. “He was fascinated,” Danenberg later recalled. “He said that Rockwell was a precursor of the hyper-realists.” In the next few years, Warhol purchased two works by Rockwell for his private collection—a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, and a print of Santa Claus, who, like Jackie, was known by his first name and no doubt qualified in Warhol’s star-struck brain as a major celebrity.
Rockwell’s art, compared with that of the Pop artists, was actually popular. But in interviews, Rockwell always declined to describe himself as an artist of any sort. When asked, he would invariably demur, insisting he was an illustrator. You can see the comment as a display of humility, or you can see it as a defensive feint (he couldn’t be rejected by the art world if he rejected it first). But I think he meant the claim literally. While many 20th-century illustrators thought of commercial art as something you did to support a second, little-paying career as a fine artist, Rockwell didn’t have a separate career as a fine artist. He only had the commercial part, the illustrations for magazines and calendars and advertisements.
Rockwell died in 1978, at age 84, after a long struggle with dementia and emphysema. By now, it seems a bit redundant to ask whether his paintings are art. Most of us no longer believe that an invisible red velvet rope separates museum art from illustration. No one could reasonably argue that every abstract painting in a museum collection is aesthetically superior to Rockwell’s illustrations, as if illustration were a lower, unevolved life- form without the intelligence of the more prestigious mediums.
The truth is that every genre produces its share of marvels and masterpieces, works that endure from one generation to the next, inviting attempts at explication and defeating them in short order. Rockwell’s work has manifested far more staying power than that of countless abstract painters who were hailed in his lifetime, and one suspects it is here for the ages.
By Deborah Solomon