16.2.11

Norman Rockwell at Dulwich

I didn't really know much about Norman Rockwell (and still don't!), but I was really looking forward to the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and, boy, it does not disappoint - that man sure could paint - and draw! The biggest revelation was how big most of the pictures are, painted oil on canvas and - even though his early covers for the The Saturday Evening Post (founded by Benjamin Franklin) were only printed in black and red - all rendered in glorious Technicolor. How on earth did he transport them to the newspaper's offices, what about the drying time of the oils, how long did each one take to execute? In the first room is a fabulous picture of a 'dough boy' and some cheeky kids (on the front of the catalogue), with his early trademark white background. It has just enough red to be picked up by the process and it's enormous, and some other paintings on display seem to be life size! One long continuous wall of the show is covered literally with all 323 Saturday Evening Post covers he created between 1916 and 1963. What a client! (He did work for other clients too!) The sheer volume of work makes the originals part of the exhibition seem small by comparison, but there's enough there to show his skill: in both technique and composition, over and over again.


One of my favourites was Bridge game - the bid (1948) an aerial view in one-point perspectve showing all four hands of cards. The skin modelling is exemplary, using a cross-hatching technique reminiscent of the tempera work of Giotto (in fact there is a tempera piece by Rockwell towards the end of the show). But he's no photo-realist, like the Pre-Raphaelites. Look closely and you can see the hand of the artist in the beautiful brushwork - highly detailed around the faces and hands; looser elsewhere. And the few drawings exhibited show he was a dab hand with the pencil too. (It would have been nice to see the reference photos he used too.) In his later work, the compositions get more busy. April Fools - girl with shopkeeper (1948) is a Masquerade of detail that would occupy a spot-the-difference fan for hours. Some people dismiss Rockwell as kitsch, reactionary and sentimental - he is after all the anithesis of the Abstract Expressionists (a subject explored in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Bluebeard) - and there is one cover on show (sadly not the original) of a Connoisseur (1962) standing before the more critically appreciated Jackson Pollock. But in all honesty, as you leave the exhibition space to enter the Dulwich's permanent collection of Old Master paintings, those brown saints and aristocrats look drab and boring in comparison with Rockwell's pictorial exuberance.

It cost £8 entry (group rate). Although there was an excellent catalogue for sale (£22), the postcards were a disappointment! I didn't dare take any photos inside the exhibition. The coach trip was organised by the Brighton Illustrators Group and we had an enjoyable lunch at the nearby Crown and Greyhound (where they had Harvey's on tap!). The exhibition runs until 27 March 2011 - don't be such an art snob, go see it. You'll be amazed.
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