Norman Rockwell's new tour will surprise you with its edgy relevance

At a time when the nature of American freedom is becoming increasingly contested territory, what with travel restrictions and daily protests spilling everywhere, the Norman Rockwell Museum has announced the first comprehensive international tour of its famous set of paintings, Four Freedoms.

Rockwell painted the celebrated works -- Freedom of Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom From Fear, and Freedom From Want -- in 1943, a kind of homage to President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech delivered in January 1941. The paintings first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, published in Philadelphia.

Over the decades, they have become the stuff of nostalgia and sentiment. But given the current political climate, they take on a more subversive and assertive edge.

Freedom of Religion celebrates the America of many faiths worshiping in concert; Freedom From Want celebrates plenty, as evidenced by a full holiday dinner table; Freedom of Speech depicts a lone man standing at what is apparently a town-hall meeting, speaking his mind to respectfully listening neighbors; Freedom From Fear shows parents looking over securely sleeping children.

“The pictures are a wonderful reminder about what our nation stands for -- what are the founding freedoms, what the Constitution stands for,” said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Formally titled “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” the touring exhibit will go on the road starting in New York City in June 2018  and will contain other Rockwell paintings and illustrations; works by J.C. Leyendecker, Mead Schaeffer, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks; historical documents, photographs, videos, and artifacts; interactive digital displays; and immersive settings. 

The Rockwell Museum has also put out a call for contemporary artists to address the issues Rockwell raised.

The National Constitution Center, on Independence Mall, has expressed interest in the exhibit, its officials said, but there has been no confirmed commitment to host it. The exhibit is penciled in for October-December 2019 in Philadelphia, but absent final confirmation, center officials declined  to comment.

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the paintings' first appearance in the Saturday Evening Post. With that in mind, the Rockwell Museum has been planning the exhibition for about four or five years, beginning during a somewhat different political climate than is currently the case.

Certainly this year, the subject of the paintings “has become a very hot topic for sure,” Moffatt said. “We’ve always wanted to share these with the wider world.”

Two of the paintings depict freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, she noted. And two depict what Moffatt called “aspirational freedoms” -- the freedom to live peacefully and securely, and the freedom to live without threat of catastrophic want.

“Rockwell did what he excelled at: looking closely at what he saw around him,” Moffatt said. “In Freedom of Speech, the man did stand up; he’s rather Lincolnesque. … In Freedom of Worship, Rockwell took great care to represent people of different faiths.”

In considering the country at war, she said, Rockwell chose to eschew “denigrating the enemy” in favor of “painting the good.” He looked around and depicted “what is at stake we have to lose.”

The issues in the paintings -- which were based on themes spun out by New Deal creator Roosevelt -- are obviously very present today. For instance, what is the role of government in supporting abundance?

“And certainly the topic of freedom from fear couldn’t be more hotly contested than it is today,” Moffatt said.