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'Telling Stories' in D.C.

Norman Rockwell Gets the Hollywood Treatment

In Smithsonian exhibit, directors Spielberg and Lucas share their collections, musings about the artist

Norman Rockwell, Let Nothing You Dismay

— Norman Rockwell, Let Nothing You Dismay 1941, oil on canvas Collection of Steven Spielberg Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles IL.

Longtime friends, Spielberg and Lucas recently told the Washington Post that they're not competitive when a Rockwell comes on the market. ("We step aside for each other," Spielberg says.) But the edge goes to Lucas, who gravitates toward works like The Runaway, from 1958, which shows a boy with a cloth bundle tied to a stick sitting beside a police officer at a soda fountain. Spielberg, on the other hand, owns a number of the artist's major paintings, like The Connoisseur, from 1962, in which a dapper gentleman stands in front of a drip painting à la Jackson Pollock.

Thoughtful interpreters

For the most part, the reaction to "Telling Stories" has been enthusiastic. "I think the celebrity factor is certainly a part of why people are coming," Mecklenburg says. "Lucas and Spielberg are both such cultural icons that people are curious to know what they would have." But she also points out that Rockwell is "a very personal painter for people," and the virtues his work symbolized still resonate today.

Mecklenburg, who has long wanted to do a Rockwell show, found Lucas and Spielberg to be thoughtful interpreters of the artist's work. "Their paintings are not acquired accidentally," she says. "George and Steven are serious collectors, and each Rockwell has special meaning to them."

Long before Rockwell influenced filmmakers, he was influenced by cinema himself. After traveling to Hollywood in the late 1930s, he started to work from photographs, which were carefully staged with models and full-scale sets. Once he decided on the exact moment of the narrative to highlight, Rockwell would shoot as many as 100 stills before he began working on a drawing. "He did multiple takes," Mecklenburg says, "and used bits and pieces from each of them; the way an arm was resting on a table from one, or the way the hat was sitting on someone's head from another, the facial expression in another, and he would combine those for the final composition."

Considering the two directors' love for the artist, is there a Rockwell biopic in their future? "I'd be surprised," Mecklenburg says. "My guess is they're more inclined to let Rockwell speak for himself rather than to reinterpret him, because he speaks so beautifully on his own."

Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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