Filmmakers Spielberg and Lucas to Bring Norman Rockwell Works to Smithsonian

"Shadow Artist," a 1920 oil by Norman Rockwell, belongs to filmmaker George Lucas. He and fellow Rockwell collector Steven Spielberg are joining forces to bring a bounty of the artist's work to the Smithsonian next year. (Public Domain, Via Smithsonian American Art Museum)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, two of America's most successful filmmakers, have combined their collections of the art of Norman Rockwell, one of America's most celebrated illustrators, for an upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is expected to announce Thursday that more than 50 drawings and paintings from the private holdings of Lucas and Spielberg will be shown at the museum next year. "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" will be on exhibit from July 2, 2010, through Jan. 2, 2011.

The idea was first proposed by Barbara Guggenheim, a well-known art consultant and a supporter of the museum, said Virginia M. Mecklenburg, a senior curator there. "She said the two of them had great collections, and we started this conversation," Mecklenburg said.

One of the exhibition's themes will be the connections between Rockwell's art and the movies. That is what led both men to start their extensive collections, said Mecklenburg, who interviewed the filmmakers in their California offices. (The sessions were taped, and edited versions of them will be part of the exhibit.) "Rockwell once said if he hadn't been an illustrator, he would have loved to be a movie director. He was very careful about lighting and had a cinematic way of looking at things," she said.

"Both collections are very personal and they both collected these Rockwells because each means something to them . . . or sometimes just made them laugh," said Mecklenburg. "Both of them say Rockwell was a master of storytelling, and a master of telling the story in one figure, and that is just like one frame for a movie."

Lucas is contributing the oldest painting in the show, one from a cover of Life magazine in 1917, with a World War I soldier in his doughboy uniform bending over to speak to a petite girl wearing a kerchief and apron. "Polley voos Fransey" is the title. Another Lucas contribution, "Shadow Artist," is a 1920 cover from another magazine, the Country Gentleman.

A particularly popular image, and one of Rockwell's favorites, comes from Spielberg: "Freedom of Speech."

"Rockwell was fascinated by Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, and he wanted to do something," Mecklenburg explained. "He was too old to be drafted. He wanted to translate all these abstract concepts into something all Americans could understand." In his address to Congress in January 1941, Roosevelt had spoken about freedom of worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of speech. Rockwell illustrated all four.

"Speech," which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in February 1943, shows a town hall meeting in Vermont. A speaker is standing, and though he is surrounded by people who don't necessarily agree with what he's saying, everyone is listening respectfully.

For most of the 20th century, Rockwell was a household name in America, thanks to his illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963, advertisements for about 150 corporations and his covers for Boys' Life, the journal of the Boy Scouts of America. Born in New York City in 1894, Rockwell died at age 84 in Stockbridge, Mass.

Both Spielberg and Lucas "remembered the Saturday Evening Post from their childhood. They talked about the way Rockwell looked at the world," Mecklenburg recounted. "Spielberg collected 'High Dive,' and [in that painting] there is a 10-year-old looking down on the diving board and he is terrified. Spielberg said we are all out on diving boards hundreds of times in our lives. He feels like he is on a diving board just before he begins to make a movie." Rockwell painted the scene for the Saturday Evening Post in 1947.

The joint collection, mainly oils and drawings, will be shown only at the Smithsonian, said Mecklenburg.

At present, the American Art Museum has only one Rockwell in its collection: "Homecoming," a 1924 oil of a bedraggled man returning home from his job.

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