WASHINGTON — When three great storytellers come together under one roof, it's worth listening to them.
That's what makes the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington — "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" — one for all ages to enjoy.
Made up of 57 Rockwell paintings and drawings — 34 from Lucas' collection and 23 from Spielberg's — the exhibition offers insight into how Rockwell's idealized view of America not only was a staple of magazine covers for decades, but also lives on through its influences on two of the greats of American filmmaking.
"Rockwell could tell a story in a single frame," said Virginia Mecklenburg, the museum's senior curator who helped organize the show. "He did the same kind of selecting of the cast, arranging of the props, dealing with the costumes, thinking through the narrative of what was happening right before and after the picture and presented his subject with the kind of attention to detail George Lucas and Steven Spielberg recognize in their own work."
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In an interview with filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau that visitors to the exhibit can watch, Spielberg talks about what he finds so appealing about Rockwell's images, zeroing in at one point on his love for Rockwell's "Boy on High Dive," an iconic painting of a crouching youth peering over the edge of the board to the water 20 feet below. The boy's eyes are wide with fear. The work hangs in Spielberg's office at Amblin Entertainment at Universal Studios in California.
"We're all on diving boards hundreds of times during our life, and taking a great risk with the status quo of your life is something that we must face," Spielberg says in the 12-minute video. "So for me, that painting represents every motion picture just before I commit to directing it."
In the same video, Lucas leaves no doubt that Rockwell, who was born in New York in 1894 and died in 1978, was a major influence. He even compares himself to Rockwell, whose work found its greatest audience on the covers of magazines such as Boys' Life and The Saturday Evening Post. Lucas describes Rockwell's vision as "an idealized version of . . . life."
"I did that in 'American Graffiti,' " says Lucas, who grew up in Modesto, Calif. "I came from a small town in central California. I grew up in the Norman Rockwell world of burning leaves on Saturday morning. All the things that are in Rockwell paintings, I grew up doing and it was a part of my life. So there's a very strong nostalgic pull for me with Rockwell."
Mecklenburg credits Barbara Guggenheim, an art dealer in Los Angeles, with the idea for the exhibit.
Guggenheim "knows Steven and George," Mecklenberg recalled. "She was talking with Steven one day and he said, 'You know, it would be fun to get these collections together anyway.' At one point she had a conversation with our director, Betsy Broun, and the idea ... just sort of evolved."
"The opportunity to do a major Rockwell show is an opportunity certainly not to be passed up," she said. "The pictures are fabulous; the collections are astonishing."
The works in this exhibit, which encompass the period from 1917 to the 1970s, may remind visitors of the stylized images that are so much of Lucas' and Spielberg's films: the wide-eyed wonder portrayed in Spielberg's "E.T." of children discovering an alien in the shed, Luke Skywalker's battles in Lucas' "Star Wars," the doomed heroism of a stunned Tom Hanks in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
Thirty years ago, Lucas and Spielberg collaborated on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — Lucas as writer, Spielberg directing — and it turns out that they also work together on collecting Rockwells, keeping each other informed on buying opportunities. The exhibit captures that collaboration in "Happy Birthday, Miss Jones": The pencil sketch is Lucas' and the final painting belongs to Spielberg.
Usually the paintings hang at Amblin Entertainment, at Lucasfilm's headquarters outside San Francisco or in the directors' homes. The 57 paintings aren't Lucas' and Spielberg's complete collections.
Along with the exhibit, there's a podcast available through iTunes and the museum's website, http://americanart.si.edu.
The only downside? The exhibit, which opens Friday, can be seen only for the next six months, and only at the Washington museum.
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