Painting The Problem We All Live With
Yesterday I made a discovery. I came across a very special painting by an American artist who was active in the middle of the twentieth century. Norman Rockwell worked predominately for magazines and illustrated their covers. In order to make a living as an artist he concentrated on realistic photographic style painting. He was the unrivalled best in the game at producing lifelike portraits and scenes. Many in the art world didn’t consider him a true artist because of his style, but then artists have always been criticised for their individuality. The criticisms he had to face had more to do with not being artistic enough, possibly even that he was copying. He even admitted to using photographs for inspiration.
I don’t agree with the critics. I can admire his work. It certainly has style. It also has the ability to move you which is important in all forms of artwork. There is a lot going on in his compositions and like all great works you will see something new every time you look at one of his works. This is especially prevalent in the discovery I made yesterday.
A Little Girl
The painting I came across depicts a African American girl flanked by four men in suits. She is wearing a pretty white dress and carrying school books. The adults in the painting are cut off above the chest. The painting zooms into her level, a child’s view of the world. She is central to the composition and springs out of the picture. She exudes strength, confidence and determination. She stares steadfastly in front of her. She is aware that she is being watched but ignores the crowd. As viewer we are part of the crowd. Her dress is immaculately clean, not so the wall behind her. There is the remnants of a tomato, it has splattered behind her and slid down the wall. It looks like it was a very near miss and a miracle that her dress has escaped unscathed. It may be a very simple and perhaps too direct statement but the tomato is instantly recognisable as one of the most telling symbols of ridicule.
Apart from the fruit there are letters scrawled across the wall. Less obvious are instances of the letter K which peer out from behind the male escorts. It is clear what they imply and also a clever analogy with the status of the Ku Klux Klan at the time. The letters, just like the organisation itself, are not very well concealed and shielded behind the arm of the law. Much more prominent is the word nigger screaming out just above her head.
The White House
The painting had a short-lived showing at one stage in the White House. There seemed to be a lot made out of the use of that particular N-word. It reminds me of when I first moved to Germany. The German word for a person of African ancestry is negger. It is pronounced the same as its English counterpart. I was shocked by the use of the word until I learnt that it was an entirely scientific term and had no racist connotations. It’s odd how certain words have so much power to influence opinion. It also seems strange now that the word is still a no-go area even though it is now so commonly used in song and as an expression of endearment among friends. It is something I can’t agree with, at least as a reason to hide a piece of artwork from public viewing.
I suppose politicians don’t really have the contact with the common people that they should have even as they still try to influence opinion. Obama should have the same courage to let it hang where it was for the duration of his term. He mentioned how important the act was that is portrayed in the picture. Even to the very existence of his presidency. Then it certainly should be held high, just like all the other political mottos that are bantered around.
The painting is a statement against intolerance. The fact that it managed to make the cover of a prominent magazine is a testament to the courage of the editor. Not only that, I feel it commendable that an artist who, at the peak of his career, still felt the freedom to express himself in a such a way. Someone who dares to speak out in such a way is worthy of praise and not criticism for what he has created. I can only hope that I have the same strength to say what I truly believe through my art. Intolerance is a word that is not thrown around so much these days. Other words have become more important or are in circulation. There are many words which have changed meaning over time and no longer hold the same strength that once did.
Perhaps the painting is not as important as the actual act which inspired it. However, without this piece of art we would not be reminded of it in quite the same way. Therein lies its importance, and I personally think it’s a damn good painting.