The old Masters of painting may have been right about suffering, but magazine illustrators got the American public right. The Taubman Museum, it turns out, has quite an amazing
collection of old and not-so-old Masters that we got to see yesterday afternoon – Peale, Eakins, Winslow Homer, an American Impressionist named Childe Hassam who did a hypnotizing springtime in Central Park of 1904 (a lot like the glimpse of Central Park I saw two weeks ago). Not much of mythology and Christian imagery of old Europe that Auden meant by “suffering” in his famous Musée poem. It’s all more upbeat American or 20th century. I was drawn to a Norman Rockwell called “Framed.”
It’s of a Jackie Gleason-like museum worker carrying an empty frame through an art museum. The surface joke is that it frames him as if he were a portrait in the museum
where he’s just a schlepping worker. The more subtle joke is that in the paintings on the wall, the aristocrats of Europe’s various eras of Fine Art are looking at this Ralph Kamden-nobody of Brooklyn with scorn or bemusement. The subtext of that joke is: Get over it, Europe. We’re Americans. We’re Brooklyn. We’re the Saturday Evening Post.
When this Norman Rockwell ran on the cover of the Post in 1946, the magazine was more than 100 years old and was by then the most popular and widely circulating magazine in America. Rockwell drew 321 cover illustrations for the magazine, many of them becoming iconic images that, as the museum blurb on this said, “created an idealized portrait of America.”
In 1946, a little irony about fine art was cool with the mass market. In the 1960s, the irony turned more hip and cynical, with Esquire’s Dubious Achievement Awards and later magazines doing The Worst of. . . and The 10 Dumbest Congressmen and such. At Leisure Publishing, where we began our field trip to Roanoke yesterday, editor Kurt Rheinheimer talked about the struggle of regional and city magazines to survive, and the need to stay upbeat. The ad department can’t afford to have potential advertisers called the worst, or stupid.
The Taubman has a great little restaurant called Norah’s. Local writer and raconteur Dan Smith joined us there for lunch, and gave us instructions on how to start a magazine in this bloody hard environment. When one or two of you actually do this in a few years, you’ll pull out the notes he handed out and see how gobsmacking on point the were, and are.
— Prof. Doug Cumming