Beyond that are the places where millions of Londoners occupy their separate urban villages, where Hampstead barely speaks to Highgate, where it is a stretch of distance and imagination between Blackheath and Greenwich.
Where the dill flower blooms
And so to Dulwich, which is sarf uv de riva, and therefore, to a Norf Lunnuner as Malcolm is, terra incognita. Which, on this occasion, is also America, my new-found-land.
One very-well-connected man explains much of what Dulwich Village is all about: Edward Alleyn, actor, entrepreneur, Jacobean property magnate and philanthropist. Having served his apprenticeship on the London stage, working in the company that was Shakespeare’s main rivals, he became a highly-successful businessman. In the second decade of the seventeenth century he bought the manor of Dulwich and converted his considerable fortune into a charitable foundation and a college. Hence the public school. Hence the park. But not the picture gallery: despite its original name (the Dulwich College Picture Gallery) that is more the legacy of Sir John Soane (whom we were with some time ago), two hundred years later.
A specific appellation
Notice the moniker: “Picture Gallery” — not generic “art”. What we are getting is the representational, the illustrative, the picturesque, the figurative: the concrete and human world rendered on paper, board and canvas, and even in stone.
For this trimester that means Norman Rockwell’s America (as above), transplanted from the National Museum of American Illustration.
We all “know” Rockwell. In a blind tasting, the general public would probably recognise his work as much as anyone’s. Much of his stuff is saccharine sweet and smooth; as The Times Leader had it:
Because Norman Rockwell’s pictures seem to celebrate American life, because they are inhabited by schoolboys and grey-haired grannies, because they are set in diners and drugstores, because he painted Middle America in the middle of the 20th century, before Kennedy’s assassination and Vietnam stirred cynicism into the American Dream, he is sometimes caricatured as the man who not only painted America but who also mythologised it.
Before hastening on:
It is not just that, like Andy Warhol, Rockwell took icons of everyday American life and lent them a mythic quality; or even that his pictures depict the virtues of tolerance and family and fair play. It was that his compositional brilliance was so acute that he could tell stories in a single image.
Rockwell said that he painted life not as it is but “as I would like it to be”. Yet his portrait of America was no fantasy. Art, Picasso said, is a lie that makes you realise the truth. Few painters told lies that resonated more authentically than Rockwell’s.
Which proves something in that Rockwell’s name seems not out-of-place alongside Warhol and Picasso, except that Rockwell probably makes more sense than either.
When Nancy Durrant reviewed the show for The Times (and gave it four stars), she put it like this:
What do you see when you think of 20th-century American art ? Pollock’s macho yet controlled splashes? Rothko’s brooding, muscular block colours? Or a snub-nosed boy, red hair askew, bracing himself for a large spoonful of medicine? This is the art of Norman Rockwell, happy to be known as an illustrator for the whole of his 60-year career, but as technically proficient a representational painter in oils as you could hope to find. Nostalgic it may be, but Rockwell’s rose-tinted but witty (and occasionally searingly sharp) vision of his country was one that gained him a vast public following. It was expressed largely through the 323 covers he painted for theSaturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963, all of which are on display here, alongside 40 original paintings and studies.
Note the “searingly sharp”.
It is a commonplace that Rockwell discovered social issues and liberalism only in his last phase, particularly after he forsake the Saturday Evening Post for Look. Again, fair enough. Until one inspects further.
Take, for example, his Colonial Sign Painter (right), the first all-colour cover of the Post. Then twig the date on the easel: 1785. Ye Pipe and Bowl tavern is not just getting a touch-up; it is getting a new name and image, for the face on the sign must be that of George III. As for the bespectacled intent painter, that looks a pastiche of Rockwell himself. Rockwell was happy to undertake advertising commissions; and therefore sees himself as the natural successor to his subject here.
Like many of Rockwell’s works, this one exists in two different versions. The message becomes quite blatant in the other, fully-developed “art-work” (as below).
Now we see that Rockwell is ridiculing the device of political-rebranding, decontamination by image and association, just as the likes of Malcolm repeatedly mocks the likes of the Windscale/Sellafield futile detox.
OK, let’s leave the rest (and there’s a lot more to come) to a later post.