In the early hours of September 2, 2015, a small boat carrying Syrian refugees from Turkey to Greece capsized from overcrowding. Later that morning Turkish police found several bodies that had washed ashore. A journalist who accompanied them took a photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down in the sand, his head lapped by the waves.
By that date the Syrian civil war had been raging for four years, sending more than three million people fleeing into neighboring countries and across the Mediterranean into Europe. Countless articles had been written about the conflict, but it was the photo of Kurdi, published in newspapers and websites around the world, that became, almost instantaneously, the emblem of the plight and vulnerability of Syrian refugees.
A major exhibition, on view now at the New York Historical Society, examines how images, like that of Kurdi, can arouse our emotions more powerfully than even the most moving words . Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Saturday Evening Post’s publication of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” and its impact on the nation.
On January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt delivered his ninth State of the Union address to Congress. He aimed to convince Congress and the public that America had to come to the aid of its democratic allies against Hitler’s Germany. Towards the end of the speech, Roosevelt argued for the defense of four universal freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—as the defining reason to assist Europe with aid and armaments.
Stephanie Plunkett, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Norman Rockwell Museum, and co-curator of the exhibition, put this exhortation in perspective:
“Roosevelt’s ideas were not popular at the time. People remembered the losses of World War I and had just come through a terrible economic downturn. The thought of moving into another war was unthinkable for most Americans. But Roosevelt understood what it would mean if we did not defend those freedoms. He went out on a limb, to the dismay of some of his advisors, to make the statement that these were values worth protecting not just for us but for the entire world.”
Roosevelt believed that the freedoms were the heart of his address, but the press hardly covered them. In the months that followed surveys revealed that only half of the respondents were aware of the four freedoms and even fewer could identify them. Americans did not understand why they were fighting or what they were fighting for.
As powerful as his words were, Roosevelt feared that the concept of four essential freedoms was not connecting with the public. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he instructed the Office of War Information to reach out to the nation’s artists.
“What Roosevelt recognized fairly quickly after the Four Freedoms began to falter, was that he had to appeal in more than one medium. He’s an early version of what we would today call multi-modality. And to me, that shows a great sense of vision,” said James Kimble, Associate Professor of Communication & the Arts, Seton Hall University, and co-curator with Plunkett of the New York Historical Society exhibition.
Norman Rockwell, celebrated illustrator of covers for the Saturday Evening Post, was one of the artists inspired by Roosevelt’s words. He wanted to use his talents to contribute to the war effort but struggled to find an effective way to depict the Freedoms. Their lofty sentiments seemed a poor fit for his down-home subjects and natural style.
His breakthrough came from an unlikely place, a town hall meeting in Arlington, Vermont, where he lived. There, a local farmer had stood up as the lone dissenter to a favored proposal, and yet he was listened to respectfully by all present. That night, while lying in bed, Rockwell realized that he had just experienced freedom of speech in practice—in his own community. His illustrations for the other three freedoms would be inspired by similar scenes from his life and those of his neighbors.
“The ‘ah-ha’ moment for him was to flip it on its head and realize that the mundane, the everyday, was exactly the way to show those four freedoms. To take them out of that grandeur so everyone could relate to them,” said Kimble.
Inspired by this new idea, Rockwell made sketches for all four freedoms and set out for Washington to pitch his images. It did not go well. Perhaps he just saw the wrong government officials that day, but he got back on the train dejected and with no commitments. On his way north, however, he stopped in Philadelphia. There, he paid a visit to the offices of the Saturday Evening Post and its new editor, Ben Hibbs. Hibbs loved Rockwell’s sketches and asked him to drop all other work for the Post and devote himself full-time to creating finished paintings of the Four Freedoms.
By the end of the year, Rockwell had completed the work. And, from February through March of 1943 the Saturday Evening Post published the Four Freedoms over four consecutive weeks. The public response was immediate and overwhelming. More than 60,000 letters to Rockwell and the Post poured in from grateful readers across the country. During the war years, the Post had a circulation of about three million—and many non-subscribers also read every copy—which meant that a significant percentage of the American population was now engaging, through art, with the ideals that Roosevelt had expressed.
Soon after their publication in the Saturday Evening Post, the government requested permission to reproduce them as posters, which the Post and Rockwell enthusiastically granted. The original oil paintings were then taken on a nationwide tour by the U.S. Department of Treasury to raise money for war bonds. Crowds of people came out to see them, and in the process purchased 133 million dollars of war bonds—worth almost $2 billion today.
The Four Freedoms finally had the impact Roosevelt had hoped for.
“Rockwell had a unique gift. He was different from some of the other artists who responded [to Roosevelt’s speech] in that he was a commercial illustrator,” explained Plunkett. “He understood, to paraphrase what he himself said, that he had just seconds to convey an idea, to tell a story that would be understandable to a broad populace.”
The illustrator Arthur Szyk was born in 1894—the same year as Rockwell—but in Lodz, Poland. From his earliest days as an art student, Szyk created images that were biting and politically satirical. His formative years were spent as a conscript in the Russian army and as art director of propaganda for the Polish resistance in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20. With the outbreak of World War II, Szyk and his family fled to Canada and then to New York. As a Jewish artist and outspoken critic of the Nazi regime (Hitler had put a bounty on his head for his popular caricatures and declared him one of Germany’s “most dangerous enemies”) Szyk had personal experience with tyranny that few other artists in America did at the time.
Irvin Ungar, Szyk scholar, antiquarian bookseller and art dealer, explained that Szyk always viewed himself as a fighter against the forces of evil. “For Szyk, his art was a platform. He always said that ‘Art is not my aim, it is my means.'”
This personal mission was apparent on Szyk’s Canadian entrance papers. “Next to ‘Occupation’ he writes ‘Artist’ — but there’s another line that asks ‘What else can you do?’ And Szyk writes ‘Fight.’ He saw his job as a fighting artist,” said Ungar.
So when Roosevelt delivered his “Arsenal of Democracy” radio address on December 29, 1940, calling for the industrial might of the United States to be used against Axis powers, and then his “Four Freedoms” State of the Union speech just eight days later, Szyk saw a clear way to bring Roosevelt’s words to life through his art.
He depicted a medieval knight acting out each Freedom in a martial and tableaux-like setting. Unlike Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, Szyk’s seem to compel us into combat to protect values he felt, viscerally, were threatened by the violence in Europe.
On September 12, 1942, the cover of Collier’s magazine featured a meticulously detailed painting by Arthur Szyk inspired by Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy.” In the foreground, the Nazi serpent rears its fanged head but appears insignificant against the industrial production of matériel on its way to the battlefield. At its center, an American blacksmith forges a sword inscribed with the word “Democracy.”
During the war, Szyk’s work was shown at 500 USO centers around the world, and according to Esquire magazine, his cartoons and caricatures of Axis leaders were more popular with G.I.’s than pin-up girls. The knights of his Four Freedoms were widely printed and distributed on postcards and postage stamps. Szyk’s cover art for Collier’s (including “Arsenal of Democracy”) reached more than 2.5 million subscribers.
Today, when it seems that so much divides us as Americans, “Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” has a purpose beyond understanding history. The immediacy of these images force us to consider what is at the core of their meaning.
“The best way to see this exhibition is to come with someone you don’t agree with politically, then sit down afterwards and have a conversation with them,” urged James Kimble at the opening.
When the show closes in New York in September, it will travel across the country in homage to the original tour, and then to Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day—a commemoration only possible, perhaps, because artists sat at their easels and drawing tables, and imagined freedom.