Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Painting Freedom

The Four Freedoms Speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 6, 1941
Without a doubt, the most difficult task an artist can attempt is to render a concept. Even painting portraits is easier. A few days ago, in discussing artists and illustrators, I made a passing reference to Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms series. Tackling a concept like freedom would be difficult for any artist, but four of them? Moreover, in this case, the artist didn't even have the freedom to decide himself which four freedoms to paint. That decision was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous "Four Freedoms" State of the Union Speech before Congress on January 6, 1941. He enumerated them: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. They were freedoms Roosevelt proclaimed not just for Americans, but that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy. The first two were First Amendment rights. The second two went beyond what the founding fathers had ordained to proclaim "economic security" and "human security." Economic security has since come to be known as the "social safety net." Human security later came to be embodied in the United Nations Charter--the freedom from international aggression. Even today, more than two hundred years after the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, all four of these freedom goals remain works in progress, broadened, and sometimes narrowed, with the winds of political change.

Great paintings are seldom born whole, but evolve, as shown in Rockwell's preliminary
studies for Freedom of Speech, 1942.
Freedom of Speech--For Rockwell, a Yankee New Englander, this one was relatively easy. Nowhere in the world is this freedom more in evident than in the region's purest example of democracy--the town hall meeting. Rockwell was at his best when depicting genre, and his heroic blue-collar (literally) spokesman came to him as naturally and clearly as any scene he ever painted. Yet even at that, the depiction did not come easy. The painting evolved from two largely unsatisfactory preliminary efforts before Rockwell decided to start over, arriving at the low, upward point of view, his main figure against a stark, dark background.

Freedom of Worship,
1942, Norman Rockwell
Freedom of Worship--This one was even more difficult. Rockwell had never tackled the subject of religion in American life before. Though he was to do so at various times later in his career (his 1959 Easter Sunday comes to mind--a well-dress wife and kids marching off to church while an unshaven father in pajamas slouches in an armchair reading the Sunday paper). Rockwell had, from time to time, taken on serious subjects, yet humor was his stock in trade. However, no simple genre scene, humorous or otherwise, would work here. There was a war on. Freedom was much too serious for that. Yet, religion was a touchy subject. The artist was forced to turn to the montage, a relatively new creative device at the time (1942), coupled with a nearly monochromatic rendering and a subtle inscription near the top of the painting "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience."

Freedom from Want,
1942, Norman Rockwell
Freedom from Want--Rockwell considered this painting to be the least successful of the four. Here genre reigns, even subtle humor in a holiday snapshot scene immediately identifiable to virtually every American family then and now. There was no sense of "want," but neither was there any sense of need. Given wartime rationing at the time, the work might even be considered inappropriately extravagant. The painting comes across as a typical Saturday Evening Post Cover for the last week in November. Of all Rockwell's paintings, this one has been one of the most lampooned. Yet, it's hard to visualize any other image or event that would adequately convey the difficult, even radical (for its time) concept Roosevelt had imposed upon Rockwell's efforts.

Freedom From Fear, 1942,
Norman Rockwell

Freedom from Fear--Fear is a deeply personal emotion. It involves both the known and the unknown. Rockwell touches both elements. The newspaper headlines reflect known fears. The tender, parental love and caring reflects the deeper, more desperate fears of the unknown. The adults absorb these fears, attempting to hide them in protecting their offspring. In effect they seek to provide their children with the very freedom they lack themselves.

Unbelievably, after his year-long endeavor, Rockwell's Four Freedoms were rejected by the Department of the Army when he offered to donate them to the war effort. Rebuffed, Rockwell turned to his old friends at The Post where they were published in successive issues between February 20 and March 13, 1943, accompanied by matching essays. Freedom from Fear was seen as the most powerful of the four. Later, if the War Department had little use for them, the Treasury Department did. Rockwell's paintings were sent on tour and raised more than $130-million in war bond sales.

No comments:

Post a Comment