In 1941, whilst the Second World War was raging in Europe and before America joined; Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) used his State of the Union Address to outline four “freedoms” that everyone in the world should be free to enjoy. These were; freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from fear. The current exhibition at the New York Historical Society exhibition brings together FDR’s idealistic and moral framework for the future and the visual interpretation of these ideals by the celebrated and iconic painter, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). This symbiosis led to one of the most captivating set of images that dreamt of a socially and morally just vision for a land of, and for, the free.
Rockwell, an American painter and illustrator known for his, almost, utopian visions of American life in the early twentieth century. His images had the power to lift and motivate the nation through the Depression and the American involvement in the Second World War. They capture a dreamlike optimism, through a rousing use of symbolism and hope; never more so than in the visualisation of the legendary characterisation of Rosie the Riveter. Rosie, a semi-biographical character, inspired a generation of women to believe in their own strength; both emotional and physical and in doing so created a surge in optimism and morale. She is the perfect example of the epitome of the power of persuasion through implicit and explicit means.
This is what makes Rockwell’s work so fascinating; it has an almost invisible ability to communicate powerful messages that influence and drive behaviour; whether from a consumer’s point of view through his advertising work most notably with Coca-Cola’s Christmas campaigns, or in the iconic editorial illustrations for The Saturday Post magazine. From an historical point of view, Rockwell’s work exists in a time before photography was commonplace in editorial and advertising and his skill in presenting photographic, or even cinematic visual experience through paint is breath-taking.
In 1943, Rockwell painted visual responses to the FDR’s Four Freedoms and they ran concurrently across four issues of The Saturday Post. The New York Historical Society has staged an intelligent exhibition that deals not just with the relationship between author (FDR) and image-maker (Rockwell), it also includes works from Rockwell’s contemporaries and objects that provide further insight into the social and historical context of the time and their interpretation.
There is something about the way in which Rockwell makes images that is reminiscent of the work by Caravaggio and the painters of the sixteenth century who unwittingly created cinematic visual experiences in their paintings. This ability to capture a moment of movement; whether the movement is how light is travelling through a window, or a moment of stillness in the human form; Rockwell effortlessly captures the notion of the ‘decisive moment’ that Henri Cartier-Bresson would identify in the 1970s in relation to photography. This is particularly visible in the painting “Freedom from Want”, where we see a middle-class family sitting around a joyful dinner table as a plentiful dinner is served. Most noticeable, is that the painting has a family snapshot feel to it. The image is portrait in photograph proportions, but also fluid and natural; there is a clamour by the subjects to be seen by the image-maker, not unlike how people behave as a photograph is taken. The figures are tight in the frame and leaning in to the ‘shot’; the girl at the back of the table is ducking down so that she appears under the chin of the man she is sat next to. Similarly, the man closest to the bottom of the ‘frame’ is turned awkwardly and smiling, as if he is suddenly turning for a photo. These images become interesting not just because of what they are communicating, but the way they are staged. It is almost as if Rockwell can feel the photographer breathing down his neck, poised to take his place.
What makes this exhibition so memorable, is that one of the smaller New York museums has brought together a thoughtful collection of images and objects that are responses to a very defined moment in time; a decisive historical moment. The exhibition is not curating artwork from a vast or complex social period, as with the recent spate of exhibitions exploring the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Instead, the exhibition provides an in-depth visual analysis of a small moment within a period of great change and upheaval. Despite the curatorial assumption that FDR’s Four Freedoms led to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is perhaps a little over generous and that realistically they are probably more of a contribution than the reason; the exhibition provides an insightful peek into a small point of American history, made even more poignant considering the tone of voice of the current administration, which moves ever further from this sentiment of 75 years ago. It forces us to question the current political climate and to scrutinise what, if anything, we have we learnt?
New York Historical Society:
Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms
May 25, 2018 –September 02, 2018