Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus

Norman Rockwell's "Cousin Reginald Spells Peloponnesus" (left) appeared in Country Gentleman on February 9, 1918. Founded in 1831, Country Gentleman was the oldest agricultural magazine in the U.S. In 1911, it was bought by the Curtis Publishing Company that also published the Saturday Evening Post. The print shows a Harry-Potteresque child outshining his cousins in a spelling bee. I have used this image for its humor when I tell people that my scholarly specialty is actually the Peloponnesus. And how do you spell that? Only cousin Reginald knows. It is interesting that the obscure peninsula of Greece was featured, even indirectly, in the pages of an American agricultural journal at this very moment. We must remember that Greece entered World War I only the summer before this issue of Country Gentleman and three years after the War began. The details of Greece's joining the Allies on June 1917 are interesting. The country was torn between allegiances to the Central Powers by the German-friendly monarch and allegiances to the Entente by the French-friendly Parliament. The French and British navy blockaded the Peloponnesus to support the government of Venizelos and ultimately tip the favor towards the Allies. Rockwell's image remains funny. Why would anyone but a bookish child know how to spell Peloponnesus? After years of working on the Peloponnese, I occasionally have to check myself. Does Peloponnesus have a double "p" or a double "n"? Beyond the humor, however, Rockwell's illustration attests to an event of geopolitical anxiety even to the reader of rural America.

I feel compelled to bring up cousin Reginald because of some welcome comments I received on my
Norman Rockwell and Conn College (Feb. 8, 2009). A typo on the original posting (1967 instead of 1977) made the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts ten years older. You can imagine my embarassment when Laurie Norton Moffatt herself caught my mispelling. At that moment, I wished I was more like cousin Reginald. But the saving grace of my typo is that it initiated a conversation that would have not happened if blogging did not connect even so hastily.

I want to post a follow up in the form of a question. What place does an archaeologist of the Mediterranean have in a dialogue with Norman Rockwell? My answer is simple. Beyond the timely reference to Greece in Rockwell's 1918 illustration, I find some deeper affinities between the visual cultures of modern Greece and modern America. Modernism in the United States was an idiosyncratic phenomenon, resisted by the general public. In one of my favorite books about the 1930s,
The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the 20th Century (1996), Michael Denning observes that the tensions between figurative and abstract art developed into a "grotesque" American expression. The United States was frought with a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, it was the most modern country in the world (and celebrated as such by the European intelligentsia) but, on the other hand, it lacked institutions that respected the role of the intellectual, the bohemian and the avant-garde. In other words American combined ultra-modernity with anti-intellectualism. The realism of Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton offered proud resistance to European abstraction (Cubism, etc.). Artists like George Tooker (student of Reginald Marsh) took this resistance into the 1950s. I mention Tooker because he was the recent subject of a retrospective at the National Academy Museum in Manhattan and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The work of Norman Rockwell should not be dismissed as merely commercial illustration. Rather it should figure centrally in the debates over American modernism.

Interestingly enough, modernism in Greece also hang dearly on figurative representation. During the last couple of years, I have been studying the visual documents through which archaeologists communicated their ideas in 1930s Greece. I've been focusing on the work of George V. Peschke, a true trans-national case study. He was born in Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, moved to Greece to practice his fine art, married a Greek, and made his living as an architect and illustrator for American archaeologists. In 1934, he was chief architect at the excavations in Corinth. Peschke was also a member in a Greek artistic association that resisted total abstraction, retaining the recognizability of human form. Although better integrated with French and German artistic traditions, Greeks were also confronted with the very modern media (advertising, posters, magzines) that divided American artistic production into commercial and fine art. Greece's problem in the 1930s was similar to America's tensions but in reverse. Although not the most modern of countries it contained a surplus of intellectuals.

There are many reasons to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum. One of them is to contemplate Cousin Reginald, the sudden relevance of the Peloponnesos in world wars, and similarities between American modernity and other modernities. Another reason is to contemplate the relationship between Norman Rockwell and the classical tradition. No better image addresses this issue than Rockwell's own
Saturday Evening Post cover from April 18, 1931.

I look forward to my next visit to Stockbridge and take advantage of the amazing new research possibilities it offers. Almost exactly nine years after my first visit, I have accumulated a whole new set of questions for the artist.

I should also mention that a few months ago, I was at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia, where my good friends James Ker and Jo Park held their wedding party. Seeing a whole display of Rockwell covers was part of the party's treat. If I am not mistaken, there was once a Rockwell Museum in Philadelphia and its collection was acquired by the Atwater Kent. I must confess that seeing the original magazines on display was such a delightful experience that I developed a bad eBay habit; I have begun collecting old issues of
Collier's and the Post. The covers, combined with the articles, stories, and advertisements, make an incredible collective artifact of modern America.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States