Art and politics collide at GW Museum’s new Norman Rockwell exhibit


Art and politics collide at GW Museum’s new Norman Rockwell exhibit. Photo credit: Amy Woolsey

by Amy Woolsey

On the stairwell of the George Washington University Museum, there are words painted in patriotic red and blue: “Rockwell Roosevelt: The Four Freedoms – Enduring Ideals.” It’s a bold and fitting introduction to the museum’s newest exhibit, which opened for public viewing on February 13th..

This room, designed to resemble a 1930s living room, juxtaposes domestic life with national unrest. Photo credit: Amy Woolsey

Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms combines the work of iconic 20th century painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell with works by modern artists that draw from the overarching theme of freedom. It arrives in Washington, D.C. as part of an international tour by Norman Rockwell Museum, the collection of which comprises a substantial portion of the exhibit.

Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt explains the unique opportunity presented by the exhibit’s presence in D.C.: “If there’s one phrase that sums up this exhibition, it’s art, powers, ideas…”

The exhibit, curated by Norman Rockwell Museum deputy director Stephanie Haboush Plunkett and Seton Hall University professor James Kimble, consists of four chronologically organized sections spanning two floors. For the most part, the artwork is arranged along the walls, creating a space that feels both open and elegant, inviting visitors to wander while using color to draw attention to certain works. Relevant photographs, videos, and artifacts, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Rockwell in 1977, are scattered throughout.

Enduring Ideals shows that Rockwell was an artist of multitudes. Photo credit: Amy Woolsey

Displayed on a tea-green partition near the entrance is the exhibit’s centerpiece, Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. Each oil painting depicts one of the four “essential human freedoms” listed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Rockwell’s vivid, impressionistic style lends a mythic aura to ordinary scenes (a Thanksgiving dinner, a town hall meeting), indicating the underlying purpose of the images as war propaganda.

“There was a sense of isolationism after WWI, and the government turned to artists to bring the ideals of the freedoms to life,” Moffat said. “That began Norman Rockwell’s journey of looking at how he could use his voice, his artist’s voice, to really… communicate lofty ideals on canvas.”

A wing off to the side contains the “War Generation” section, which frames the Four Freedoms – Roosevelt’s speech as well as Rockwell’s paintings – in the context of the Great Depression. The highlight is a room designed to resemble a 1930s living room, complete with a couch and an antique radio. Like much of Rockwell’s work, it juxtaposes domestic life with national unrest, its cozy ambiance at odds with the tension of the era.

“Murder in Mississippi” room. Photo credit, Amy Woolsey

Perhaps the single most striking piece of the exhibition is “Murder in Mississippi.” Occupying the center of a red wall at the top of the stairs, the illustration, which depicts the real 1964 killing of three civil rights activists, announces a shift in technique and attitude. With its deep shadows and implied violence, it has a visceral quality that might surprise those unfamiliar with Rockwell’s post-World War II work.

Rockwell tends to be associated with a certain brand of midcentury conservatism, but Enduring Ideals shows that he was an artist of multitudes. In the postwar section, he confronts injustice in the country he previously romanticized. Several works are laced with wry humor.

“He gets to the essence of humanity,” Norman Rockwell Museum curator Stephanie Plunkett says. “I think he was able to present our imperfections in a way that was endearing. He wasn’t idealistic; he brings a sense of reality to his work. But it’s full of hope.”

His ideas continue to resonate, as demonstrated by the contemporary works placed at the end of the exhibit. To acquire these works, the curators send out a call for entries, asking artists for their interpretations of the concept of freedom. Of roughly 1000 submissions, 40 were selected for display, including Deborah Samia’s “The Four Freedoms (A Tribute to Norman Rockwell)” and Benny Bing’s “United We Stand.”

“Just like in the 1960s, in the 1940s when war was raging, we’re in a time of change,” Moffatt said. “It’s good to remind us there are things we can agree on, especially in a time where there’s a lot of disagreement on how to move forward in the world. This inspires us to aspire to be our best selves.”