Recently, Norman Rockwell Museum Curators Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce K. Schiller had the pleasure of teaching a course about the art of illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Chaired by award-winning illustrator Whitney Sherman, this Critical Seminar in the school’s outstanding new MFA Illustration Program explored diverse aspects of our visual culture, and students provided fascinating perspectives. The essay below by MFA Illustration student Lisa Perrin compares a World War II image by our own Norman Rockwell and a contemporary magazine cover featuring acress Gwyneth Paltrow, offering much food for thought. Enjoy!
Gillis & Gwyneth: A Cultural Comparison
By Lisa Perrin
Presently, most Americans receive their information and entertainment from the Internet. Even television, a revolutionary advancement in its time, is becoming an antiquated technology. It is difficult for my generation to conceive a time when magazines held power and influence in American homes. The kind of magazines people waited in anticipation for, talked about, and wrote back to. The Saturday Evening Post is one such magazine. Handling it gently in gloves it is like some fragile relic of a distant culture. With the April 11th, 1942 issue of The Saturday Evening Post in one hand and the September 2011 issue of Elle in the other it is a curious comparison seventy years in the making. It is fascinating to consider what has changed in American life and consciousness. What we care about now, the way we advertise, and whom we show in magazines has all changed. We are a completely different culture from the days of The Saturday Evening Post.
This particular edition of The Post is unique because it was released during World War II. And the war is mentioned in several editorials and advertisements in the issue. The cover is the most striking element of any magazine. It is what catches our eye from the newsstand and piques our interest. Norman Rockwell has illustrated this particular cover. On a lush crimson background is a solitary figure, a young man, with an incredulous expression that relates engrossed interest and surprise. We quickly discern that he is a soldier from his uniform. The object that is fascinating him so much is not a weapon of war but a newspaper from home. We know it is from home because Rockwell has plainly titled it “The Hometown News,” and the newspaper is marked up with blue pen, surely notes from mom to make sure “Willie” sees certain stories. Beside the young man is a tub of half-peeled apples and a great roll of other newspapers with an envelope. There is so much to explore in this cover. There is the depiction of the solider doing an ordinary task. This would have been a comforting image to mothers at home who would prefer to think of their sons peeling apples then on the fields of battle. This was when American patriotism was flying high. And this young man, Willie Gillis, represented hundreds of young men recruited in the war effort. Another point of interest is the sight of this young man pouring over a newspaper, which is something we don’t see too many young people doing these days. He, like the readers of The Post, got their information through the written word. Even with the cloud of a terrible war this cover evokes nostalgia for a simpler time, a time of innocence and Americana.
My September issue of Elle has two covers this month. Both feature actress Gwyneth Palthrow. Both are photographs. Unlike Rockwell who signed his work, it is difficult to discover the name of the photographer. On one side we see her profile. She is wearing a chunky knit sweater and her blonde hair is tied into a pony-tail. She is back-lit in a dreamy way that makes her seem angelic and far-way. This contrasts heavily with the other cover on the reverse side. Gwenyth is looking directly at her viewer through smoky eyes. Her hair is loose. She is wearing a black mini dress with huge furry sleeves. One hand is placed stylishly on her hip. The other hand showcases a massive diamond ring. Her black dress stands out against the stark white background. She is a glamorous celebrity looking the part. She does not represent the every-many like Willie Gillis but rather the fetishized ideal. She is not away at war but in a photography studio. She is real and he is fictionalized. And yet Willie seems much more accessible. Their clothes say a lot about them. Willie is in the army; Gwenyth is a rich style icon. She represents the current American obsession with celebrity. In common, they are both solitary figures on solid backgrounds. The images overlap with the name of the magazine. They are both icons but in very different ways.
America has changed. It is undeniable. These two magazine covers reflect a shift of thinking in this country. We seem to prefer photographs to illustrations, celebrities to ordinary people, sex to wholesomeness. We don’t seem to want the rich narrative of a Rockwell cover but the flat image of a celebrity that tells no story at all. It is difficult not to leaf through The Post with a certain kind of nostalgia for a simpler time where American heroes were soldiers, not celebrities.