Freedom to Travel
An exhibit on FDR and Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms goes global
The exhibition contains Norman Rockwell works, like "Freedom of Speech", and other artists’ paintings, including the images below "Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare" by Thomas Lea and a sign in Birmingham by Arthur Rothstein.
Illustration for PELELIU, Tom Lea Paints Island Invasion, Life, June 11, 1945; United States Army Center of Military History, Washington, D. C.; Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943; Collection of Norman Rockwell Museum. ©SEPS: Curtis Licensing, Indianapolis, IN
The Four Freedoms concept was considered to be a flop. When FDR’s famous speech to Congress was made at the start of 1941, it was met with a mediocre reception. This was a critical time: Roosevelt was laying the groundwork for going to war with the Axis powers, needing to rally the public around ideals he wanted to secure for future generations.
It wasn’t that the American people disliked the concept; rather, the average Joe and Jane couldn’t connect FDR’s words to their own lives. There was a strong isolationist mindset after the First World War and the Depression. So, Roosevelt turned to the country’s greatest poets, playwrights, artists, and photographers to project those ideals.
It didn’t work.
Then, in 1943, America’s most renowned illustrator stepped forward to inspire his fellow Americans through what he did best, giving life to ideas through everyday scenes. With his brushstrokes, Norman Rockwell transformed FDR’s Four Freedoms from a perceived misguided flop into an indelible part of the national vernacular.
“Together, with one telling and the other showing, the two men had unwittingly given the abstract concept a profound meaning even as they had inspired Americans to embrace the ideals themselves. It was a collaboration that would elevate the president’s original phrase into a timeless moment. And that moment, looking forward, would influence the very shape of the postwar landscape,” writes James Kimble in Enduring Ideals, Rockwell, Roosevelt & The Four Freedoms to be released the end of May by Abbeville Press.
Kimble, communications professor at Seton Hall University, is among more than a dozen notable writers in this book that will accompany the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want. He and Norman Rockwell Museum’s Stephanie Haboush Plunkett co-curate the international tour that opens at the New-York Historical Society on May 25. It then travels to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.; Mémorial de Caen in Normandy, France (opening June 4, 2019, the 75th anniversary of D-Day); the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; the Denver Art Museum; and the Norman Rockwell Museum (fall 2020).
“We wanted to target populations that are diverse and where the Four Freedoms message would resonate,” says Martin W. Mahoney, the Rockwell Museum’s director of curatorial operations.
This “very ambitious exhibition,” as Mahoney calls it, germinated four years ago and contains more than 250 pieces. It is actually two shows: the historical context of Four Freedoms, with works by Rockwell and other artists of the time, along with photographs and artifacts; and “Reimagining the Four Freedoms,” a juried show consisting of 40 pieces by modern artists from across North America. (Major support comes from The Alix Foundation, George Lucas Family Foundation, and The Travelers Companies, Inc. Additional support is provided by an anonymous donor, Michael Bakwin, Helen Bing, Elephant Rock Foundation, Ford Foundation, Annie and Ned Lamont, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Ted Slavin.)
“The ideals in Roosevelt’s speech and Rockwell’s paintings are timeless concepts, relevant in any age,” says Plunkett.
From private and public lenders, the pieces converged at the Rockwell Museum, where they were carefully examined, some requiring preservation work done at the Williamtown Art Conservation Center. Then all the artwork was repacked, crated, and ready for travel. In addition to the interactive portions of the exhibition—there is an immersive virtual reality in which you can step into any of the Four Freedoms paintings—an educational curriculum accompanies the exhibition that is available online and is published as a book with lesson plans to be distributed at each venue for teachers to take back to their classrooms.
Children may learn that in 1942, Rockwell was frustrated that he wasn’t getting anywhere with FDR’s concept. Then he was struck in the middle of the night with the image at a town hall meeting he had just attended in Arlington, Vermont. Neighbor and farmer Jim Edgerton had risen to speak against a popular motion. It was a moment of “tolerant democracy,” as Kimble describes it in the new book. That was Rockwell’s breakthrough, his interpretation of Freedom of Speech. In seven months, Rockwell created four oil-on-canvas paintings, each measuring 45.75 by 35.5 inches. Editor Ben Hibbs of The Saturday Evening Post had commissioned him to do the work.
“Somebody should try to present the Four Freedoms in understandable, visual, emotional terms, and I knew if anybody could do it Norman Rockwell could,” Hibbs later reflected. The artist’s finished images were reprinted in four consecutive issues, each time reaching 3.3 million subscribers. An essayist provided commentary on each: Freedom of Speech in the February 20, 1943, issue, was accompanied by a parable from Booth Tarkington, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. On February 27, Freedom of Worship was released with an essay by philosopher Will Durant. Rockwell’s Freedom from Want followed in the March 6 issue, with commentary by Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino-American poet and labor activist. And Freedom from Fear ran in the March 13 issue, aside an essay by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Stephen Vincent Benét.
The U.S. Office of War Information turned Rockwell’s interpretations into four million large-scale war bonds posters that appeared in post offices, canteens, libraries, and other public spaces. A tour followed, with more than a million people coming to see Rockwell’s images and purchasing some $133 million in war bonds. (Each buyer received a set of smaller Four Freedoms prints.)
In Enduring Ideals, former U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson writes that Roosevelt understood an individual’s hopes could not be confined by national borders. One FDR adviser questioned whether the Four Freedoms should apply “everywhere in the world.”
“I don’t know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.” Roosevelt replied: “I’m afraid they’ll have to be some day … the world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”
Rockwell’s works remind us to keep striving to find the humanity and the heart that make us one, Eliasson writes. That is the Rockwell message that struck him as a young boy living in a small town in Sweden, and that still stirs Eliasson to this day. Rockwell summons the inner artist in us all. Keep drawing, Rockwell says. Draw the line that connects our shared humanity and aspirations.