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What: "Norman Rockwell's America:The Saturday Evening Post Covers and Paintings from the National Scouting Museum"

Where: Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St. Omaha

When: Through Oct. 3

Admission: $6 adults; $4 senior citizens and college students with i.d.; $3.50 ages 5-17; free Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday noon-4 p.m., closed Monday

HEAD:

Sentimental journey

DECK:

'Norman Rockwell's America' at Joslyn

OMAHA - The work of Norman Rockwell has been experiencing an art world revival over the last few years, gaining in reputation thanks to historical revisionism challenging the long-held view that left him out of the march of movements, a sentimental realist relic in the era of surrealism, abstract expressionism and pop art.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that resuscitation has been accompanied by popular museum shows that revisit Rockwell's art, providing the intellectual justification for exhibitions designed to get bodies through the doors.

After seeing "Norman Rockwell's America," a two-part show at the Joslyn Art Museum, I'm convinced that the critics and scholars got Rockwell right the first time around.

Looking at the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers that make up the bulk of the exhibition, it's impossible not to be impressed with Rockwell's skill as an illustrator.

But the display of a few paintings and drawings verifies the notion that his handwork was essentially a study or photo model for the finished products, which were mass produced on millions of magazines.

For example, the painting "Welcome To Elmville" looks plain on canvas, with its rural cop hunched behind the road sign that gives the picture its name, a watch in his right hand.

But transferred to the Post cover on April 20, 1929, and re-titled "Speed Trap," the image comes alive - the watch given purpose, the sign obliterating part of the magazine's logo and the white background making the central image stand out rather than seem bland.

Rockwell's technique is further illuminated with the tempera-and-graphite preliminary study, then the oil painting for "The Runaway" which shows a cop and a kid at a soda fountain. Fleshing out larger painting from the smaller study demonstrates how Rockwell worked.But it is only when it is on paper surrounded by type that the image seems whole.

The last example comes from "LibertyGirl," a World War II-era symbolic depiction of a homefront woman. In the charcoal sketch, she's being attacked by bricks emblazoned with the Japanese flag and flying swastikas. But those elements are missing from the magazine cover, a move to simplicity for print that eliminated some of the power of the image.

Rockwell is known as a realist.But the Saturday Evening Post covers are far from realistic, even for their own time.

In the 1930s, for example, he did not paint the poverty and despair of the Depression, opting instead for historical fantasy, romance and humor. That was likely just what magazine readers wanted to see. But it certainly isn't anything close to social realism.

Looking at the show, which consists of framed copies of all the covers presented by decade, it is easy to see Rockwell's evolution as an illustrator, his pictures becoming more detailed with more going on in the images as the years went by.

By the '60s, however, the Post had changed its direction and in his final years with the magazine he contributed as many portraits of leaders, such as President John F. Kennedy and Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser, as he did his views of the American scene.

Over the years, several of Rockwell's Post covers have become nostalgic icons, recalling a past that may never have existed anywhere but in the imagination of the artist and his audience.

"Bottom of the Sixth" from April 23, 1949, is my favorite of those. It depicts three weathered baseball umpires looking up at the sky, the home plate ump turning his palm up to catch a raindrop while holding his mask in his other hand, a chest protector dangling from his arm.

But my absolute favorite Rockwell cover is one of his last for the Post.

In "The Connoisseur," from Jan. 13, 1962, a dapperly clad balding art lover stands in front of a splashed abstract expressionist painting, obviously a nod to Jackson Pollock. It's unclear whether Rockwell was trying to make fun of Pollock, the viewer or the art world in general. The image is too ambiguous for that.

But it marks, without question, the penetration of advanced art into the public consciousness, for better or worse. It would be fun to see not only the original painting, but the faux Pollock that Rockwell painted for his model.

"Paintings from the National Scouting Museum" make up the second part of "Norman Rockwell's America." Rockwell was affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America for 64 years, doing calendars, illustrations and covers for Boys Life magazine.

Those paintings reveal even more explicitly than the magazine covers Rockwell's idealizing/mythologizing of his subject matter. All of the Scouts, young and old, are strapping outdoorsmen involved in a noble, patriotic endeavor.

That's clear in "Growth of a Leader," which shows four profiles representing the stages of Scouting involvement, starting at the top with a blue uniformed Cub Scout and moving down to an adult leader with flecks of gray at his temples. The backdrop for this grouping a rippling American flag.

Even when he goes international, depicting Scouts from several countries walking down a flag-lined boulevard, probably at a jamboree, the same spirit comes through in the image.

Rockwell's idealization is particularly easy to see in those paintings, which feel like they are from a bygone era now.

The paintings do show that Rockwell was a fine technician, a master of scumbling and expert at precisely rendering faces so they look almost photographic.

But technical expertise doesn't make anyone an important painter - and neither does popularity.

Perhaps the best measure of that is the artist's enduring influence. As far as I can tell, Rockwell has had little impact on painting and fine art.

But he remains revered among illustrators, for good reason.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

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