Thursday, May 30, 2013

R.O. Blechman Retrospective at the Norman Rockwell Museum

R. O. Blechman in The Comics Journal.

R.O. Blechman is the subject of a retrospective, from May 11 to June 30, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge MA, entitled The Inquiring Line
The following is his speech from the opening night.

If anybody had told me back in the 1940s that there would be a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell, I would have thought it was a joke. A museum for a Saturday Evening Post illustrator? Impossible. And mein that museum? Sheer fantasy.

In 1947 I was graduating high school. For the Senior play I was cast as somebody called Alfred. I had only one line in the play. When an actor very proudly showed me a painting he had just done, I said— and here comes my line: “Gosh, that’s almost as good as a Norman Rockwell.” That brought down the house. And no wonder. Norman Rockwell was not considered a serious painter. As The New York Times once asked—this in a headline– was he “a painter,” or “merely an illustrator”? That question answered itself.

More to the point, Norman Rockwell’s description of America was no America I recognized. It was, in many ways, a mythic and insular land—although, in fairness to Rockwell, it was a pure construct of his clients (and what illustrator, then or now, could fight a client?) That America belonged to The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies Home Journal, Colgate toothpaste and Kellogg’s Cornflakes.

But the work was brilliantly drafted and lovingly depicted, and as I was later to appreciate, painted with the brush of an Old Master and, on occasion, the eye of a graphic designer.

Now who was I back in the 1940s, this 17-year-old kid, to poke fun at Norman Rockwell? I wasn’t an artist, or even interested in art, although I was a student at the High School of Music and Art where art, or music, as the case might be, was a serious 5-day-a-week affair. I think I applied to the school because my neighbor was an artist—a young French lady, svelte and beautiful. Our neighboring apartments overlooked Central Park, and she had painted scenes of the park on her walls. One mural had a painted donkey (although there were no donkeys in Central Park that I ever saw)—and on the donkey’s rear end, mounted on the wall, was a light switch. She would ask me, “Buddy,” (that was my nickname then, Buddy)—“Buddy, could you turn on the light, please?” That was my introduction to art—turning on that light—and that turned me on to art.

After graduation I went to Oberlin College, where I took no art classes—as I mentioned, I had no interest in art or in becoming an artist. I did, however, have an interest in politics, and I drew political cartoons for the school newspaper. Cartoons with a stiff, brittle line that had no relationship to my present broken line – or, as it’s now flatteringly called by The Norman Rockwell Museum, an “Inquiring Line.”

At Oberlin I took a course in humor, a seminar taught by a Spanish friend and colleague of Luis Bunuel. As the final project for the seminar I wrote and drew a book called Titus Fortunatus, or Why Rome Fell. Rome. I may have drawn small, but I thought big. It got the worst mark in the class, a B-minus. My consolation came later. The only other student to get as low a grade was William Goldman, the novelist and screen writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Which shows you that sometimes nothing succeeds like failure. But I wouldn’t make a maxim of that.

After graduating, I showed my book to a publisher, Henry Holt, and was told, probably to get rid of me, “We’re only interested in something seasonal. Christmas. . . Thanksgiving . . . something like that.”

But I took the suggestion seriously. I called an Oberlin friend of mine, and asked him, “Paul, do you know of any Christmas stories?” He suggested a medieval tale about The Juggler of Our Lady, which sounded Christmasy-enough for me to work with—which I did, in one evening, and that. I suppose, launched my career. It almost ended my career, too. Early success can be crippling. And you can make a maxim out of that.

It took me many years to realize that while my eye was good, my hand was rotten. I am very much a self-taught artist—the best kind, perhaps, as I had to work hard to create, to forge, a style. Sometimes artists who are more naturally gifted than I am become facile.

Now to return to Norman Rockwell.

Even into the late ’50s, Norman Rockwell’s work was downgraded. In 1956 Andrew Wyeth remarked that Rockwell made what he called “dead painting.” No real emotion. Not, he pointed out, the emotion of a Thomas Eakins painting at the Pennsylvania Academy, the “Gross Clinic,” where the surgeon, Dr. Gross, was shown with blood on his hands—blood that shocked the Philadelphia gentry. There was no blood on any Norman Rockwell hands. Not, that is, until the late ’60s when, fortified by his wife Molly who had decidedly liberal opinions, he was able to express his own distinctly liberal outlook. In 1965 he painted—not illustrated, painted—the murder of the three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. As part of his research, he even smeared blood on his own white shirt to observe and really feel what human blood was like on a person. With that painting, Norman Rockwell shook hands with Thomas Eakins.

Let’s go back in time again, not when I was a high school student in the 1940s, but an established illustrator in the late ’60s. My parents-in-law had moved to Stockbridge from Boston. They lived in the old Town Hall, two buildings from Norman Rockwell’s Main Street studio. During a visit, I went to the precursor of this museum, the Old Corner House on Main Street where his paintings were on display. I went out of curiosity more than anything else. And it was a revelation. That illustrator could paint, and I mean really paint. And not only that, he could design. Those horizontal bars that made purely decorative statements, they were perfect grace notes. And the halos that sometimes framed his subjects–what wonderful and contemporary graphic statements they were. In fact, look at my drawing of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s in this room. It has a Norman Rockwell-inspired halo. Imitation has to be the highest form of praise. Maybe Alfred knew something then.

Reputations rise and fall, dizzily and unpredictably, on the Roller Coaster of Fame. When I did my Alka-Seltzer commercial—and when I said “did,” please keep in mind that I did the storyboard and drawings for it, not the concept or the voices— all of which were so integral to its success. When I did that commercial, Time magazine featured it in an article, mentioning the artist (me) not by name, but as somebody who was a cross between Jules Feiffer and James Thurber. Now tell me, where was I on Fame’s roller coaster then?

That is the problem every artist, every illustrator, actor, musician, and writer faces. What’s “in” one year might be “out” the next. And this may have nothing to do with quality but everything to do with whether something is new—which is good—or old— that’s bad. It’s today’s value system, although I suspect that it’s an age-old problem, but intensified in our fast-paced, publicity-mad culture. And if you think fame—or simply recognition—has no meaning to a creative person, just think of Franz Schubert who composed nine symphonies in his short lifetime– but never had a single one performed. Not one. No wonder he composed an Unfinished Symphony. Why finish it? Why bother, when nobody will ever hear it. Without the confidence that comes from recognition—that your work will most likely find an audience, any audience–too many creative people end up like Franz Schubert with unperformed music, or they end up with unfinished novels, poems, and paintings, or untried careers.

What’s “out” at one time was certainly Walt Disney, whose studio was eclipsed in the ’40s and ’50s by an upstart animation company, UPA, whose films featured the cutting edge, flat, stylized graphics of the period.

Walt Disney once remarked that he had a nightmare. His work might end up in a museum. Now look where he’ll be in a few weeks. One flight up, his worse nightmare come true.

And look at where I am, sharing a celebration with Walt Disney soon to be upstairs, me downstairs, in a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell. An unlikely trio in an improbable setting, one that Alfred would never have dreamed possible.

And speaking as Alfred’s grandfather, I want you to know how unimaginably proud and pleased and gratified I am to be here.

Thank you very much for joining me this evening.

Sharon Smullen in The Berkshire Eagle.

R.O. Blechman solo show to open at Norman Rockwell Museum

At 83 years old, illustrator and animator R.O. Blechman finds himself riding a new wave of recognition.

His ninth decade began in 2010 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society, followed last year by his induction into the distinguished Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame -- Norman Rockwell was its first inductee. On Saturday, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge will open a retrospective exhibit of his 60-year career, "R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line," which will run through June.

A sought-after illustrator and cartoonist for advertising campaigns and publications from the New Yorker to the New York Times and Village Voice, Blechman received widespread acclaim for his groundbreaking classic 1967 Alka-Seltzer "Talking Stomach" animated TV commercial. His early books for children anticipated the advent of graphic novels, while his compelling 1984 Emmy Award-winning adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" for PBS, starring the voice of Max von Sydow as the Devil, set new boundaries for a feature-length cartoon.

With his trademark shaky, hesitant lines and everyman characters, his art frequently highlights his native New York, exuding warmth and wit while often considering serious topics such as politics, religion and societal ills.

The Rockwell exhibit will primarily show his work from the last 25 years, along with examples from his earlier career, in a variety of media including ink, gouache, collage and his favorite medium, watercolors. "My style evolved over time," he said. "I don't like to repeat myself. In a way I'm known for one type of art, but I love dabbling in other forms."

While he considers animation his first love, he sees himself as basically a storyteller, whether he is using still or moving images. His primary creative influence remains legendary New Yorker cover artist Saul Steinberg. "He invented a whole vocabulary," Blechman explained. He occasionally finds himself following Steinberg's style. "Like a little planet, I can't resist the gravity of a larger body," he said.

Chance and opportunity have played prominent roles throughout his life. "The Soldier's Tale," he said, came about through "a whole series of odd coincidences," including the convergence in Milan of a PBS executive and a La Scala Stravinsky poster. His gift of a cover illustration to Story magazine led him to design all of its covers for the next 10 years, resulting in some of his best work, he said.

Still, he considers turning down the chance to animate "Curious George" a "major blunder" -- after doing "The Soldier's Tale," he had thought, he wasn't about to start drawing monkeys!

Putting the exhibit together has allowed Joyce Schiller, curator of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, not only to honor Blechman but also at the same time to satisfy her own personal interest in artists who re-use art from the past in a new way. "Bob [Blechman] does that spectacularly," she said. "He did a New Yorker cover of a robot sitting and thinking which is based on Rodin's Thinker," she noted, "as well as a version with a rodent -- Rodin's Rodent."

The exhibit also includes two versions of the iconic painting "Whistler's Mother." One is a New Yorker cover with tiny people offering Mother's Day gifts, while the other is a watercolor of her sitting in a modernist Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair with Picasso's colorful "Demoiselles d'Avignon" hanging behind her.

As Schiller explained, re-using art makes the assumption that people looking at it are going to recognize it. From the point of view of a museum professional, "there something about that that I find really reassuring," she said. People viewing Blechman's images "will be pushed to think about their politics a little bit," she said, "and they'll be reminded that they recognize his work even when they don't go looking for it." "And I hope they all laugh a lot," she added. "Even the serious work has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to it."

If you go ...

R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line'

Norman Rockwell Museum, Route 183, Stockbridge, MA 01282

May-October and holidays:
Open Daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and until 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays in July and August
Weekdays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Weekends and holidays: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Admission: $20

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