Morgan Rockwell - Thanksgiving day

Yesterday the world was coloured in pink, today the atmosphere is dark

A few days ago, I stopped at a used books stand in Piazza dei Ciompi in Florence; there, I found some American magazines from the late 1950s. The glossies were dedicated to the middle class and were full of information about gardens and US middle-class house furnishings. The designer was great Norman Rockwell, who based his work on photography and succeeded in replacing Henry Patrick Raleigh as the portrayer of US bourgeoisie. American people were no longer interested in Raleigh’s work and the man ended up in poverty, after squandering all he had earned. Rockwell replaced him in the heart of US readers and exceeded his extraordinary earnings; suffice it to say that, for each sketch, editors gave the designer a large amount of money that today would range from five thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars. Rockwell received his highest payment – thirty-five thousand dollars – from the “Saturday Evening Post” in 1951, for an illustration that celebrated Thanksgiving Day.

Today, to see these works again – one of them portraying Rockwell himself while he is drawing “his” Americans – is actually amazing. Not just for their nice graphics, but also for the philosophy they testify to. They provide an optimistic portrait of the US and a happy and confident middle-class; a boy wearing white socks and neatly ironed shorts, and a nice girl wearing a pleated skirt, spotless stockings, and a large pink bow in her hair. The father – like all fathers by Rockwell – wears a Stetson, a double-breasted coat by the Brooks Brothers, and dazzling polished, brown shoes; he leans against a pink Cadillac parked on the driveway of his house and looks at his children with optimistic, glittering eyes, with a beautiful, blooming garden in the background. The mother wears a pink gown with turned-up collar and feather-decorated cuffs; she still has her curlers on from the night, which she spent in decent sexual achievement and refreshing sleep, and is ready for a new day she will dedicate to her country, her family and the Lord. In the sky, a superb, bright sun wishes everyone a good morning.

And here is Rockwell’s strength: he put aside the hard years of the war, of environmental catastrophes, of Faulkner, O’Neill and Caldwell, of Dorotea Lange’s dramatic photographs, and committed himself to clear doubts and provide certainties by adhering to the American dream. This is something everyone liked, from the lower middle-classes to very wealthy people. One can observe Rockwell’s sketches as much as he likes, but he will never find hurricanes, disasters, black people passing by, Woody Guthrie singing “this land is my land” or Edward Hopper’s solitude; there are no hints to the fact that, once turned twenty, those smiling, well-groomed children will gather in Woodstock and try to revolutionise everything that can be revolutionised, advocating free love and throwing their underwear into the fire, nor to Andy Warhol, who was already on the road with his people, and looking dazed in front of rapacious cameras.

Unlike Rockwell, today’s illustrators create hallucinating “plates”: Crumb’s distorted creatures, Will Eisner’s distressed figures or Aline’s sex-hungry people. Yesterday, the present was full of pinky optimism; today, bleak dark times prevail, waiting for future days that are still impossible to be seen (although they do not look that reassuring). Henry Patrick Raleigh and Norman Rockwell were two reliable, overpaid spokesmen of an absolute idea of certainty that was financed by the establishment. Today, every cartoonist, every illustrator who has survived photography, has his own creativity, a bit of Picasso’s Guernica. Turmoil and tragedy. And, often, a confusion that dominates and tangles up marks and lines, like in a grounded trip.

Umberto Cecchi