THE NEWEST EXHIBIT at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is excellent, largely because of what isn't on display. Norman Rockwell's depictions of the Four Freedoms are presented in the context of the moment of their creation. Though the temptation to use the exhibit as an opportunity to compare Rockwell's time with our own must have been fierce, other than a passing comment that "the paintings are as relevant today as they have ever been," the exhibit is blessedly silent on that topic.
Of course, it's impossible to go into the exhibit without making such a comparison--the museum is in Washington, D.C., for God's sake. But the curator has left the visitor to his own devices on that question, which is fine, since he is likely to leave believing whatever he believed when he went in.
Though the words on the posters are clear--"The Four Freedoms: Ours to Fight For"--the artifacts around the paintings remind us that the country did not effortlessly rally 'round the reasons to fight, or even agree about whether to fight at all. And the government was far from certain about the best way "make the case for war."
IN JULY 1942, Norman Rockwell took the train Washington to pitch his idea for the now-famous Four Freedoms paintings inspired by Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union speech. But when Rockwell arrived, as he later wrote in his autobiography, "none of the government officials could help us. The war was going badly; nobody had time for posters." After a long day of meetings with unhelpful bureaucrats, wrote Rockwell, "we found ourselves in the Office of War Information (or, to speak plainly, the propaganda department). I showed the Four Freedoms to the man in charge of posters but he wasn't even interested."
At the time, "feelings in the writers' division of OWI ran strongly for publishing only the truth. Staff members flatly objected to any publicity campaign designed to 'sell' the war effort the way toothpaste or cola was marketed."
But by April of the following year, the Feds were whistling another tune. The Saturday Evening Post's new editor, who knew a winner when he saw it, had commissioned the paintings for his magazine. And the rest, as they say, is history. The Four Freedoms were a stupendous hit. Soon the paintings were on nationwide tour, complete with tickertape parades, interpretive dance by "Steffi Nossen's Teenage Dance Workshop," department store promotions, and "public school children singing," pressed into the service for which they were originally intended--to help with the war effort.
THESE CELEBRATIONS didn't magically generate themselves, of course. Sarah Cash, the curator of the exhibit, calls the national War Bond Show tour a "large interesting and intricate marketing phenomenon." The exhibit features period press kits with "Meet the Artist" tear-out sheets and "Keep the Light of Freedom Burning" promotional materials, bond covers adorned with Rockwell's iconic images, and smaller fold-up freebie copies of the paintings given to purchasers of war bonds.
But there were spontaneous expressions of patriotism inspired by the paintings, and the exhibit's real strength in capturing these outpourings without overshadowing the paintings.
A 1941 news reel of FDR reenacting the first sale of a new issue of war bonds to White House employees plays on an endless loop in the exhibit hall. The production quality is astonishingly low and the staging is poorly done. But with FDR fumbling with handfuls of cash, it captures an oddly human moment in what became a multi-billion dollar campaign.
Letters to Rockwell from Saturday Evening Post readers reveal how complicated the nation's reaction was to the simple ideas in the paintings. Some correspondents demanded that Rockwell address race relations, others suggested fifth freedoms, one objected to the age of the worshippers. And one letter, perhaps the highlight of the supplementary material in the exhibit, isn't political at all. It is a letter, in verse, from Post editor Jim Yates begging Rockwell for the paintings, which he eventually delivered more than four months late. The salutation offers "deep apologies to poor old Poe":
Spoke Yates I am in trouble, so I came up here to huddle,
To beg to plead, to coax, yes, to implore
Please don't think I am nagging, as the time seems to be dragging
But our presses wait and wait, on almost every floor,
Waiting for the Freedoms, we expected long before,
Only that and nothing more."
A few sample submissions from an essay contest that accompanied the Four Freedoms around the country are on display as well. Participants wrote what the Four Freedoms "meant to them." As the exhibit's curator notes, "There were a lot of winners of the contest it seems. The contest was very--democratic." The Four Freedoms, it turns out, cover a lot of ground.
THE CORCORAN'S DISPLAY of the Four Freedoms is timed to coincide with a citywide celebration of "The Greatest Generation." The dedication of the new World War II memorial on May 29 is "expected to draw more than 100,000 veterans and they families," according to press releases. The extravaganza around the Four Freedoms was just as enormous and potentially overwhelming. In fact, after showing up at the opening of the War Bond Show in Washington, Rockwell retreated to his studio in Vermont, saying that the event had been a "churning sea of people . . . the place resembled Noah's ark on a hot night.
Visitors overwhelmed by the WWII monument dedication will find a refuge in the Corcoran. The exhibit will charm those who are cynical about government efforts to sell a war; it is propaganda's best face. But mostly, it's a welcome dip into another time that seems simple looking back, but turns out to be full of conflicting individual thoughts and feelings about war, freedom, and patriotism. Sound familiar?
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.