'Imprinted: Illustrating Race' at Norman Rockwell Museum confronts stereotypes and opens dialogue

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'Imprinted: Illustrating Race' at Norman Rockwell Museum confronts stereotypes and opens dialogue
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957), Rumba, 1942. Lithograph, 9 ¼ x 13 in. (23.5 x 33 cm) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles © María Elena Rico Covarrubias.

STOCKBRIDGE, MASS.- Norman Rockwell Museum announced Imprinted: Illustrating Race, a landmark exhibition on view June 11 through October 30, 2022. This special exhibition examines the role of published images in shaping attitudes toward race and culture. More than 150 works of art and artifacts of widely circulated illustrated imagery are on view, produced from 1590 to today. The exhibition explores harmful stereotypical racial representations that have been imprinted upon us through the mass publication of images and the resulting noxious impact on public perception about race. It culminates with the creative accomplishments of contemporary artists and publishers who have shifted the cultural narrative through the creation of positive, inclusive imagery emphasizing full agency and equity for all. A concurrent marquis installation debuts recent paintings by award-winning illustrator and author Kadir Nelson. Conceptualized and created during the COVID-19 pandemic, these works capture the artist’s reflections on today’s national and world events.

Imprinted: Illustrating Race is co-curated by guest Curator Robyn Phillips-Pendleton and the Museum’s Deputy Director/Chief Curator, Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. Phillips-Pendleton is the Interim Director of the MFA in Illustration Practice program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and University of Delaware Professor of Visual Communications; she has written and spoken widely on the theme of this exhibition. They are joined by a distinguished panel of national advisors including 10 academic scholars, curators, and artists with expertise related to the focus of the exhibition’s thesis.

"Published images hold powerful sway on shaping our cultural attitudes. Images can uplift, as Norman Rockwell’s work did, and they also can be deployed to establish negative and demeaning attitudes, as often happened with intention during formative centuries of published images in the United States. As our nation redresses a renewed era of racial reckoning, it is important to examine how systems of publishing were used to form commonly held beliefs and attitudes.

Published illustration had a role in framing the United States racial attitudes – it is also a powerful tool for reframing stereotypes and celebrating this country’s strength in many cultural identities. We are grateful for the support of many partners, who are making this exhibition possible, from outstanding scholar contributors to our sponsors,” noted director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt.

“Norman Rockwell Museum is dedicated to the art of illustration and to examining the influence of widely published imagery on society,” said Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. “Imprinted: Illustrating Race presents a revealing analytical study of challenging historical visual material that invites consideration of the ways in which what we see affects what we believe about humanity and our world. I am honored to work with Robyn Phillips Pendleton and our accomplished panel of advisors to bring this important subject to light.”

Illustration has been at the forefront of significant, defining events in the United States from the Civil War and Reconstruction Era to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and today. The exhibition focuses on artwork commissioned by publishers and advertisers and created by illustrators, engravers, and printers, as well as the work of contemporary creators that will spark dialogue and raise awareness about the role of published art in reflecting and shaping beliefs and attitudes about race.

“I am thrilled to be working with Norman Rockwell Museum and to be a part of this groundbreaking illustration exhibition that highlights the perception and advancement of race through artwork. This exhibition promotes new ideas through imagery that celebrates, normalizes, and facilitates inter-cultural tolerance,” says Robyn Phillips-Pendleton.

I. Historical Perspectives

The exhibition examines the history of racial stereotypes in illustration, sanctioned in publishing from 1590 to the early 1900s. The roots of damaging and provocative representations of race through the construction of cultural identities of African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and immigrants from across the world, and the role of illustration as a powerful vehicle in the process are explored. Examples of the pervasive effects of blatant and implied negativity with regard to race and culture in the pictorial press, on illustrated trade cards, advertisements, product labels, broadsides and posters, and literature, in establishing long-lasting attitudes toward race, are presented in this section.

Illustrations from Harper’s Weekly, Puck Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, The Saturday Evening Post, and a range of advertising campaigns, including the Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima brands, reflect the prevalent demeaning portrayals of people of color before, during, and after the Civil War. The proliferation of prints and print culture, and the widespread dissemination of serialized images such as Darktown Comics by Currier & Ives demeaning depictions ostensibly portraying a Black American town and imagery circulated by the print company Kimmel and Forster, offer insights into nineteenth century mores and attitudes. These derisive portrayals would ultimately be seen in various forms across the globe, thereby expanding the reach of anti-Black imagery.

Illustrations by Hammatt Billings, George Cruikshank, and others for such literary works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published over time, demonstrate ongoing shifts in perspective and character design, also seen in the propagation of theater posters, advertising, and magazine illustrations relating to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous narrative, which itself was part of propagating toxic stereotypes of Black people as solely actualized by their roles in assisting white people. These materials were produced by white publishers for white consumers, who were the perceived audience for publications and products.

This section of the exhibition also features materials created to combat negative perceptions. In 1859, William J. Wilson published the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” under the name of Ethiop in seven installments in the Anglo-African Magazine, the preeminent Black monthly of the antebellum period. In 1853, Frederick Douglass’ Paper printed a letter from Wilson where he discussed his recent trips to art galleries in New York City. He commented on the lack of “distinguished black” images and figures in the galleries, concluding, “we must begin to tell our own story, write our own lecture, paint our own picture, chisel our own bust.”

II. Illustrating Change: The Harlem Renaissance through World War II

The exhibition explores the artistic outpouring of multi-faceted cultural activities by African Americans in reaction to oppressive racial profiling and Jim Crow laws. The Harlem Renaissance inspired pride in Black life and identity following World War I through the Great Depression. Artists associated with the movement conveyed a rising consciousness of inequality and discrimination, and an interest in the rapidly changing modern world, many experiencing a freedom of expression through the arts for the first time.

This segment of the exhibition focuses on the significant contributions of illustrators of the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem, as well as new African American cultural expressions across urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States, affected by the Great Migration, which brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston in search of relief from systemic economic, racial and social oppression in the post-Civil War South. The Harlem Renaissance ushered in a new focus on African American arts. Illustrated images in magazines and books, and on posters and murals called attention to significant causes, cultural traditions, and artistic styles.

This era also made unprecedented opportunities available for female artists, and the new African American magazines of the time were the best prospects for women to publish their work. The two largest national journals that employed African American women as freelance illustrators were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s magazine, The Crisis that founding editor W. E. B. Du Bois launched in 1910, and the Urban League’s Opportunity Magazine, begun in1923. In 1926, Langston Hughes wrote that “within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world.”

Imagery by Albert Alexander Smith, Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Bennett, E. Sims Campbell, Miguel Covarrubias, Charles Clarence Dawson, Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones, Rockwell Kent, Jacob Lawrence, Ahmed Samuel Milai, and Martha Sawyers, among others, are featured and compared with illustrations by Stanley Arthurs, Alice Barber Stephens, Edward V. Brewer, Harvey Dunn, J.C. Leyendecker, F.X. Leyendecker, Mead Schaeffer, and Jesse Willcox Smith, created for The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and other mainstream 20th-century publications.

III. Illustration, Race, and Responsibility: 1950s to Now

Illustration, Race, and Responsibility: 1950s to Now explores activism through art from the Civil Rights movements of the mid-20th century to the present day’s continued conflict around confronting racism. Recognizing that illustration and mass media had established divisive narratives–illustrators, editors, publishers, and advertisers became more aware of their responsibility to feature equitable and authentic representations of race.

Publishers marketed major American periodicals to a largely white audience who were perceived as purchasers of the products advertised within them; until the Civil Rights Movement, people of color were almost completely invisible on their covers and pages. Unlike cartoonists who reflect their personal opinions above all else, illustrators tended to represent group values, and deference to those constraints provided them a means of reproduction and distribution of their art.

This section highlights the art of noted illustrators who have worked proactively to create respectful and equitable images to convey a sense of hope and cultural pride for a new generation from the Civil Rights Movement and moving forward to the newspaper, periodical, picture book, and digital images of today.

Posters, magazine, and book illustrations by Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, Leo and Diane Dillon, Harvey Dinnerstein, Emory Douglas, Gayle “Asali” Dickson, Jim “Seitu” Dyson, Geoffrey Holder, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Rockwell, Ben Shahn, Burton Silverman,andCharles White, and many contemporary practitioners, including Rachelle Baker, Thomas, Blackshear, Alex Bostic, Sheila Bridges, Ashley Bryan, R. Gregory Christie, Jerry Craft, Noa Denmon, Rudy Gutierriez, Gary Kelley, Hollis King, Keith Knight, Anita Kunz, E. B. Lewis, Charles Lilly, Kadir Nelson, Robyn Phillips-Pendleton, Brian Pinkney, Jerry Pinkney, Andrea Pippins, James Ransome, Faith Ringgold, Shadra Strickland, Morrie Turner, Kara Walker, Larry Weekes, and Loveis Wise, among others, are featured.

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