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Norman Rockwell Gets the Hollywood Treatment

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

Don't bother checking for showtimes. The latest George Lucas-Steven Spielberg hit isn't playing at the local multiplex. The directors famous for creating box-office behemoths (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones series) recently pooled their private art holdings to produce a major exhibition, "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

One of the most popular and prolific artists of his day, Rockwell was considered both a chronicler and a shaper of 20th-century American life. In his covers for the Saturday Evening Post that Spielberg and Lucas collected as children, as well as in his Boy Scout calendars and advertisements, Rockwell tended to inspire nostalgia for the ordinary in small towns—from children playing marbles to a couple in a rumble seat.

"Telling Stories," which runs through Jan. 2, 2011, has 57 original oil paintings and pencil illustrations, dating from 1917 to 1972. The exhibit coincides with a book compiled by show curator Virginia Mecklenburg that examines the connection between the movies and Rockwell's iconic images. A 12-minute film that plays in the gallery features interviews with Lucas and Spielberg, discussing the impact that Rockwell has had on them personally and on the world.

"I came from a small town in central California and grew up in the Norman Rockwell world of burning leaves on Saturday morning," Lucas says in the film. "All the things that were in Rockwell's paintings were part of my life. What he did was document what life was like then, and that's what I tried to do in American Graffiti. I wanted to show a uniquely American mating ritual of the '60s, to show how boys related to girls. It was all done through cars, and it was a particular kind of social culture, and that [film] is a direct descendant of Rockwell."

Capturing narrative

In his World War II film Empire of the Sun, Spielberg also paid a big-screen tribute to Rockwell, who died in 1978 at the age of 84. The scene in which Jim's parents tuck him into bed on the night of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai was based on Rockwell's Freedom From Fear, from 1945. Both Spielberg and Lucas say that Rockwell had an uncanny gift for encapsulating an entire narrative in a single moment.

The idea for "Telling Stories" originated with Spielberg, who wanted to present their collections together in a way that the public could appreciate them. It's the first time the two directors have ever lent their Rockwells, which normally hang in their homes or at their offices in California. The directors began buying Rockwells in the late '70s, around the time of their first movie collaboration, Raiders of the Lost Ark. They now have close to 90 works combined.

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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