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Norman Rockwell and R.O. Blechman

R.O. Blechman is the subject of a retrospective at the Norman Rockwell Museum entitled The Inquiring Line. The following is his speech from the opening night. 

If anybody had told me back in the 1940s that there would be a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell, I would have thought it was a joke. A museum for a Saturday Evening Post illustrator? Impossible. And me in that museum? Sheer fantasy.

In 1947 I was graduating high school. For the Senior play I was cast as somebody called Alfred. I had only one line in the play. When an actor very proudly showed me a painting he had just done, I said— and here comes my line: “Gosh, that’s almost as good as a Norman Rockwell.” That brought down the house. And no wonder. Norman Rockwell was not considered a serious painter. As The New York Times once asked—this in a headline– was he “a painter,” or “merely an illustrator”? That question answered itself.

More to the point, Norman Rockwell’s description of America was no America I recognized. It was, in many ways, a mythic and insular land—although, in fairness to Rockwell, it was a pure construct of his clients (and what illustrator, then or now, could fight a client?) That America belonged to The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies Home Journal, Colgate toothpaste and Kellogg’s Cornflakes.

But the work was brilliantly drafted and lovingly depicted, and as I was later to appreciate, painted with the brush of an Old Master and, on occasion, the eye of a graphic designer.

Now who was I  back in the 1940s, this 17-year-old kid, to poke fun at Norman Rockwell? I wasn’t an artist, or even interested in art, although I was a student at the High School of Music and Art where art, or music, as the case might be, was a serious 5-day-a-week affair. I think I applied to the school because my neighbor was an artist—a young French lady, svelte and beautiful. Our neighboring apartments overlooked Central Park, and she had painted scenes of the park on her walls. One mural had a painted donkey (although there were no donkeys in Central Park that I ever saw)—and on the donkey’s rear end, mounted on the wall, was a light switch. She would ask me, “Buddy,” (that was my nickname then, Buddy)—“Buddy, could you turn on the light, please?” That was my introduction to art—turning on that light—and that turned me on to art.

After graduation I went to Oberlin College, where I took no art classes—as I mentioned, I had no interest in art or in becoming an artist. I did, however, have an interest in politics, and I drew political cartoons for the school newspaper. Cartoons with a stiff, brittle line that had no relationship to my present broken line – or, as it’s now flatteringly called by The Norman Rockwell Museum, an “Inquiring Line.”

At Oberlin I took a course in humor, a seminar taught by a Spanish friend and colleague of Luis Bunuel. As the final project for the seminar I wrote and drew a book called Titus Fortunatus, or Why Rome Fell. Rome. I may have drawn small, but I thought big. It got the worst mark in the class, a B-minus. My consolation came later. The only other student to get as low a grade was William Goldman, the novelist and screen writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Which shows you that sometimes nothing succeeds like failure. But I wouldn’t make a maxim of that.

After graduating, I showed my book to a publisher, Henry Holt, and was told, probably to get rid of me, “We’re only interested in something seasonal. Christmas. . . Thanksgiving . . .  something like that.”

But I took the suggestion seriously. I called an Oberlin friend of mine, and asked him, “Paul, do you know of any Christmas stories?” He suggested a medieval tale about The Juggler of Our Lady, which sounded Christmasy-enough for me to work with—which I did, in one evening, and that. I suppose, launched my career. It almost ended my career, too. Early success can be crippling. And you can make a maxim out of that.

It took me many years to realize that while my eye was good, my hand was rotten. I am very much a self-taught artist—the best kind, perhaps, as I had to work hard to create, to forge, a style. Sometimes artists who are more naturally gifted than I am become facile.

Now to return to Norman Rockwell.

Even into the late ’50s, Norman Rockwell’s work was downgraded. In 1956 Andrew Wyeth remarked that Rockwell made what he called “dead painting.” No real emotion. Not, he pointed out, the emotion of a Thomas Eakins painting at the Pennsylvania Academy, the “Gross Clinic,” where the surgeon, Dr. Gross, was shown with blood on his hands—blood that shocked the Philadelphia gentry. There was no blood on any Norman Rockwell hands. Not, that is, until the late ’60s when, fortified by his wife Molly who had decidedly liberal opinions, he was able to express his own distinctly liberal outlook. In  1965 he painted—not illustrated, painted—the murder of the three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. As part of his research, he even smeared blood on his own white shirt to observe and really feel what human blood was like on a person. With that painting, Norman Rockwell shook hands with Thomas Eakins.

Let’s go back in time again, not when I was a high school student in the 1940s, but an established illustrator in the late ’60s. My parents-in-law had moved to Stockbridge from Boston. They lived in the old Town Hall, two buildings from  Norman Rockwell’s Main Street studio. During a visit, I went to the precursor of this museum, the Old Corner House on Main Street where his paintings were on display. I went out of curiosity more than anything else. And it was a revelation. That illustrator could paint, and I mean really paint. And not only that, he could design. Those horizontal bars that made purely decorative statements, they were perfect grace notes. And the halos that sometimes framed his subjects–what wonderful and contemporary graphic statements they were. In fact, look at my drawing of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s in this room. It has a Norman Rockwell-inspired halo. Imitation has to be the highest form of praise. Maybe Alfred knew something then.

Reputations rise and fall, dizzily and unpredictably, on the Roller Coaster of Fame. When I did my Alka-Seltzer commercial—and when I said “did,” please keep in mind that I did the storyboard and drawings for it, not the concept or the voices— all of which were so integral to its success. When I did that commercial, Time magazine featured it in an article, mentioning the artist (me) not by name, but as somebody who was a cross between Jules Feiffer and James Thurber. Now tell me, where was I on Fame’s roller coaster then?

That is the problem every artist, every illustrator, actor, musician, and writer faces. What’s “in” one year might be “out” the next. And this may have nothing to do with quality but everything to do with whether something is new—which is good—or old— that’s bad. It’s today’s value system, although I suspect that it’s an age-old problem, but intensified in our fast-paced, publicity-mad culture. And if you think fame—or simply recognition—has no meaning to a creative person, just think of Franz Schubert who composed nine symphonies in his short lifetime– but never had a single one performed. Not one. No wonder he composed an Unfinished Symphony. Why finish it? Why bother, when nobody will ever hear it. Without the confidence that comes from recognition—that your work will most likely find an audience, any audience–too many creative people end up like Franz Schubert with unperformed music, or they end up with unfinished novels, poems, and paintings, or untried careers.

What’s “out” at one time was certainly Walt Disney, whose studio was eclipsed in the ’40s and ’50s by an upstart animation company, UPA, whose films featured the cutting edge, flat, stylized graphics of the period.

Walt Disney once remarked that he had a nightmare. His work might end up in a museum. Now look where he’ll be in a few weeks. One flight up, his worse nightmare come true.

And look at where I am, sharing a celebration with Walt Disney soon to be upstairs, me downstairs, in a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell. An unlikely trio in an improbable setting, one that Alfred would never have dreamed possible.

And speaking as Alfred’s grandfather, I want you to know how unimaginably proud and pleased and gratified I am to be here.

Thank you very much for joining me this evening.

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