1921-6-4_no_swimming_-_norman_rockwell

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Has Norman Rockwell Been Outed?

Any biographer writing about a familiar subject faces the same towering problem—how do I make this person seem new and modern? When writing about an artist such as Norman Rockwell, whose art acts for many as a visual time capsule of early and mid-20th century Americana, that issue becomes doubly difficult to surmount.  In American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, author Deborah Solomon re-evaluates not just Rockwell’s work, which has been unjustly dismissed as kitsch for too long, but also Rockwell himself and the motivations hidden in his art. Among those hidden clues to the man she finds in Rockwell’s paintings, Solomon unearths homoeroticism and a fascination with preadolescent boys that puts the artist in a wholly different light. Although Solomon never slaps the label of homosexual or pedophile on Norman Rockwell, she comes awfully darn close. Those innuendos have infuriated Rockwell’s descendants and raised larger questions about the dangers of modern biography. Has Norman Rockwell been outed?

Solomon, an art critic and journalist who’s written insightful biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, worked with the cooperation of the Rockwell family on the biography. As  Julie Bosman’s piece in The New York Times on this controversy recounts, the Rockwell family claims they “were perfectly open” with Solomon “because we liked her.” The sexual innuendo stemming from readings of some of the paintings shocked the family, who kept quiet for the first few weeks that the book’s been in circulation because reviewers have generally deemphasized Solomon’s suggestions and focused on different aspects of the book. “We’ve asked ourselves over and over again, should we come forward or let this thing die?” Rockwell’s granddaughter tells Bosman. The family finally decided to challenge the claims when people began referring to Rockwell “as a closeted homosexual” and the idea was “dangerously becoming fact.”

But what does Solomon actually say? After claiming that Rockwell “demonstrated an intense need for emotional and physical closeness with men,” she goes on to suggest that Rockwell’s three marriages and the children born of those marriages were just attempts to “control[] his homoerotic desires.” An otherwise innocent camping trip with a male assistant assumes a different tone all thanks to a comment in Rockwell’s diary that the assistant looked “most fetching in his long flannels.” Solomon takes the suggestion to the brink without ever using the word “gay” and even adds that she found nothing “to suggest that [Rockwell] had sex with men.” By that point, however, she’s piled the hints too high.

Even more inflammatory is the suggestion that Rockwell was a pedophile. “[W]e are made to wonder whether Rockwell’s complicated interest in the depiction of preadolescent boys was shadowed by pedophilic impulses,” Solomon writes. Paintings such as No Swimming (detail shown above), showing half-dressed, still-wet boys fleeing the local swimming hole with an unseen authority figure hot on their heels, transform before our very eyes from heartwarming vignettes of simpler times gone by to the shared gaze of a disturbed mind. Solomon’s cozy use of “we” in her “we are made to wonder” compels the reader to join in her game of sexually charged psychological readings. But, once again, Solomon pulls up short of calling Rockwell a pedophile, adding weakly at the end that “[t]here is no evidence that he acted on his impulses or behaved in a way that was inappropriate for its time.”

Where there’s smoke, the old saying goes, there’s fire. Solomon blows a lot of smoke around in hopes of igniting controversy and, perhaps, the kind of publicity that translates into book sales.  “I’m a biographer, I am not a psychiatrist,” Solomon defends herself in The New York Times piece. “I would never presume to say that someone is gay. But I do feel entitled as an art critic and an art historian to analyze works of art.” Solomon says that she looks at Rockwell’s art and takes its abundance of young, attractive male figures, adds the dearth of sexy women, and arrives at the conclusion of “homoerotic tendencies” that the documented evidence of Rockwell’s life does not confirm. Unfortunately, that same biographical evidence can never reject Solomon’s conclusions either. If even multiple marriages and fathering children become defense mechanisms for Solomon, then Rockwell’s life and art can never be cleared of these allegations.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld famously added when his television persona faced an “outing.”  There’s certainly value in proving that homosexuality wasn’t invented in the 1970s by demonstrating that canonical artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci may have been homosexual or bisexual. Grant Wood: A Life, R. Tripp Evans’ biography of Rockwell’s contemporary and fellow artist of Americana Grant Wood (which I reviewed here), stated a compelling case for how Wood’s life informed his art and how he struggled with his sexual orientation in a less-tolerant age. I haven’t read Solomon’s Rockwell biography yet, but from what I’ve read second hand and from the emphasis played on Rockwell’s psyche on the publisher’s website plugging the book, it surely sounds like Solomon, despite her protests, is at least playing a psychologist in her book. “Behind the folksy, pipe-smoking façade lay a surprisingly complex figure—a lonely painter who suffered from depression and was consumed by a sense of inadequacy,” the website ominously plays up before citing Rockwell’s treatment under “the celebrated psychoanalyst Erik Erikson” and relocation “to Stockbridge, Massachusetts so that he and his wife could be near Austen Riggs, a leading psychiatric hospital.” Rockwell’s a sick, sick man, Solomon’s book (or at least its publicity) announces, but the form of that sickness is left to reader’s imagination. Solomon reports. You decide.

The danger of writing about this controversy lies in giving it even more oxygen in the public discourse, which can become just more fuel for the fire. The Rockwell family hoped the allegations would pass by if they kept silent, but subsequent events have driven them to make their voices heard. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with the idea of Norman Rockwell as a homosexual man and artist, but there is something wrong with making such claims to sell books. Instead of the enlightened attempts to rediscover the homosexual artists of the past, Solomon’s words sound more like a “soft homophobia” playing on the prejudices of potential readers, specifically fans of the conservative aura surrounding Rockwell’s artistic Americana who would be shocked, outraged, and titillated enough to buy and read. For me, the most troubling aspect of American Mirror is the coupling of homosexuality and pedophilia, which reflects the same confusion and prejudice surrounding the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church’s priesthood. Perhaps a reading of Rockwell’s art through an LBGT lens could do good someday (the recent sale of three Rockwells for $57.8 million suggests that Rockwell and his art are facing a possible resurgence), but all that’s been truly “outed” from this episode are the lingering vestiges of homophobia in American society.

[Image: Norman Rockwell. No Swimming (detail). Cover for June 4, 1921 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Image source.]

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