George Lucas on Norman Rockwell and the Movies
July 16, 2010
Note: The following is an excerpt from an interview with George Lucas by Laurent Bouzereau, filmmaker, and Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on September 12, 2008.
Laurent Bouzereau and Virginia Mecklenburg: Do you remember the first time you saw Norman Rockwell?
George Lucas: Well, I grew up in the heyday of the Post magazine. We subscribed and every week or so we'd get a picture in. I would enjoy it and I became a fan of illustrators. I liked drawing, I liked art, and I especially liked magazine illustration and comic illustration. So that was my first introduction to art in general. And then as I went on I took history of art and a lot of other things that broadened my range of art appreciation, but at the same time my heart stayed with illustrators. When I graduated from high school, I really wanted to go to Art Center and become an illustrator. My father didn't want to have an artist in the house, so I ended up going into anthropology instead. But eventually that's probably what moved me into film in the first place. But I like the sentiment. I've always been interested in art. I've always been interested in anthropology, and I've always been interested in art that speaks to the time in which it was made.
LB and VM: And Norman Rockwell, specifically to your point, speaks to that.
GL: As somebody that records a time, I think he's brilliant at it. Because it's not just recording it, he captures the emotion and more importantly the fantasy, the ideal of that particular time in American history. So you really get a sense of what America was thinking during those years and what their ideals were, and what was in their hearts.
LB and VM: Rockwell said he painted life as he'd like it to be. Do you agree with that statement?
GL: Well, I'm not sure—that's true, I mean, we say that in movies. When we were in film school, we would say, "We're not making movies about the way things are, we're making movies about the way things should be." And that's the power you have as an artist, to be able to put your spin on reality and make it the way you think it should be. Rockwell created his art to relate to people, but at the same time he showed generations to come what it was like in those years.
LB and VM: You have a number of Rockwell sketches, as opposed to the final piece. Tell me about that.
GL: With Rockwell the pencil sketches are as illuminating and as interesting as the paintings. Sometimes even more interesting. He simplified his style very much during the 1960s and late '50s, and I like his earlier works, and I like the sketches of the later works because they have much more detail in them, and they're much more elaborate.
LB and VM: Tell me about Happy Birthday Miss Jones. Steven has the painting and you have the study. I'm wondering what your emotional reaction is to that particular painting and sketch?
GL: It was one of those nice situations where I actually had the sketch first, and then he went and bought the painting. Again, I like the craftsmanship of the sketch, but the actual painting itself demonstrates that with Rockwell every person is a character, which is what we always aim for in the movies. We have to make sure that the extras and everybody that's on the screen has a personality, a life. They aren't just nameless, faceless drones that walk through the shot. And a lot of artists don't bother with that.
LB and VM: Do you think that one of the reasons why he was embraced so universally is that he showed a love for ordinary people? And that he made everyone seem special?
GL: He really talked about real people. He showed you the way they lived their lives, and I like that about him. At the same time, he had a great deal of sensitivity toward those people's lives, their jobs, and their character. And in so doing, he encapsulated lives that existed at that particular point in time. That idealism, that naïveté, that innocence is Norman Rockwell. He is very emblematic of a certain part of America during that time.
LB and VM: Do you think a Rockwell painting is like an image in a movie, where if you watch it once, you'll take something away from it, but if you watch it twice, you start looking in the corners, embracing other aspects of the same frame?
GL: Norman Rockwell is very cinematic. He is a storyteller, trying to convey an ambiance and underlying themes and at the same time entertain and make sure the story is clear. When we make a movie, we have to put a lot of the same elements in our frames that he puts in his frame. There's nothing that hasn't been thought through very carefully by the art department, by the cameramen, by the actors, etc. Growing up on Rockwell was probably a very big reason that I felt so comfortable when I got into the movie business.
LB and VM: You've used the term illustrator, but I think Rockwell struggled with that and wanted to be seen more as a painter. Do you find an interesting ambivalence about being popular and successful?
GL: My feeling is that all art, pretty much up until the nineteenth century anyway, to make it very clean, is illustration. After that, you start getting into the Impressionists, you get into photography, and you get into other things. Then art split off into illustration, which depicted reality and interpreted it. It eventually turned into a business, like magazine covers and other similar type entities. It's still art. If it appeals to you emotionally, it's art. If it doesn't appeal to you emotionally, then it's not art as far as I'm concerned. And Norman Rockwell was emotional. So whether he was a painter, an illustrator, a guy that did covers, a popular guy is all irrelevant. The point is, he was an artist. He was an artist just like any artist who was painting, say the caves in France and showing you the spiritual value of antelope. Because he wasn't trying to say this is a good representation of an antelope that you would find in a textbook. This was a spiritual painting of an antelope, and that's what Norman Rockwell was doing. He was doing the spiritual paintings of America and American ideals in the 1930s and '40s that went beyond the literal.
LB and VM: What a beautiful way to end.
Related Link: Listen to American Art's podcasts about our exhibition Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Next on Eye Level: an interview with Steven Spielberg
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