The AAEC alerted members to an exhibit of Pat Oliphant cartoons at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge the other day.
I’d already known about it, but the hassles of traveling in the pandemic had let me procrastinate, so I jumped in the car yesterday and drove down to catch the second-to-the-last day.
The museum isn’t huge — this isn’t like the Art Institute of Chicago where you should bring a lunch and possibly a sleeping bag — but it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re anywhere nearby, and the Berkshires are a lovely destination.
It includes a vast array of Saturday Evening Post covers from the 20s up through the 60s, which, as seen above, really are the covers themselves, right down to the address label, not the original art. You won’t see pen strokes and erasures, but it’s an impressive collection that allows you to contemplate his transitions and variations over the decades.
And, as you can see, they’re behind reflective glass, so, while photography is not prohibited, it’s not all that productive, either.
Better you should put your camera away and just look at things like the earnest concentration on that little girl’s face, which lifts this so far above the usual “nosy brat” gag, as well as other details like the mother’s frazzled hair and the sailors and girls in the seats ahead and behind, plus the fact that the flyboy and his friend are also being interrupted by the conductor.
No raw pen strokes, perhaps, but a lot to unpack and admire. There are also explanations and a few examples of how Rockwell posed and photographed his models.
There is a substantial sampling of his paintings, including this prospective cover that most artists and writers can identify with, in which you can contemplate the brush strokes, as well as how he turns a fairly common “couldn’t come up with anything” gag into something worth seeing.
A lot of Rockwell is sentimental; but he’s so much better at it than anyone else that you forgive him for yanking on heartstrings and for preserving an America that maybe mostly existed in our imaginations.
Though this one stopped me in my tracks, because I remember the old family doctor, and, if Dr. Kerr had a waiting room, his offices weren’t a whole lot more formal than this, and there was no waiting room when he dropped by for a house call.
It also reminded me of the time in the 70s when one of my boys got sick while we were back home in the Adirondacks and we had a similar visit to Doc Lowell’s office, for which we were charged five bucks.
The funny part of that being that I knew Doc spent his vacation working on reservations, but, until I was asked to write about him after he died, I never realized that his full time practice in our little mill town was also a matter of serving the underserved, bless his heart.
Speaking of reservations, when Rockwell was commissioned by the government to do a painting of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1970, he said he needed people in the picture, and showed a Navajo family contemplating the massive change to their way of life.
I’m sure his government sponsor didn’t see the implicit criticism.
Having lived in a part of New England that still had Town Meeting, I admire the Freedom of Speech poster in Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series, and here — not my best focus, sorry — is a study he did when he was choosing perspectives for the piece.
Also in the temporary exhibit are (were) works by Pops Peterson who reinvented Rockwell from an African-American and more contemporary point of view. Here’s his take on Freedom of Speech …
… and his take on the famous “Runaway” cover, which featured a male cop and a boy. This is a second take of the updated firefighter-kid homage, which Peterson did when he realized he could use the boy from Rockwell’s classic as the diner operator in this one.
Now let’s go look at some Oliphants. It was a single room, not a huge exhibit, but this time it was the originals, so the pen work and white-out were there to be seen, as well as memories of the battles fought.
This piece was a reminder that I wasn’t the only person in Denver who had doubts about Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war back in ’68 or who doubted his word when he brought that frazzled dove out again in ’73 in an effort to head off the Watergate hearings.
Though I’ll confess I expected it to work. I realized by then that what I believed had a pretty limited impact on what was going to happen.
Which turned my cynicism somewhat inward a generation or so later when the damned fools elected a more blatant charlatan.
That, in turn, made me laugh in a whole new way at this take on Nixon, since what a cynical Patrick Oliphant joked about in 1974 turned into a reality when Donald Trump took center stage and did, indeed, decide he needed a Soviet-style show of military might.
Though Nixon, for all his faults, had served in the US Navy, which may be why this was only Oliphant’s fantasy and not his.
Oliphant’s cynicism was non-partisan, and he was as darkly suspicious of Clinton as he had been of Nixon, and for some of the same reasons.
I recall at the time thinking maybe he should ease up a bit, but, not so much looking back as looking around, I appreciate his ability to hold presidential feet to the fire. I don’t know that it keeps them honest, but it at least makes them wary.
What makes Oliphant stand out is that his sharp criticism was not governed by party lines, nor was he simply illustrating his puppet masters’ talking points. (No names, please.)
We were once again on the same page when I lived in New York, a state that somehow never got the message that Senators should probably live there. We elected RFK as a carpetbagger in ’64 and then did it again in ’02 with Hillary Clinton, and I objected both times.
They turned out all right, but they still weren’t local, and they should have been.
Sorry you missed that one, but here’s what’s next: Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, June 11 – Oct 31.
The Berkshires will be dreamlike, even without frosting.