In a world giddy with high-speed connections and hooked on instant messaging, “More Than Words: Artists’ Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum November 11–January 14, reconnects viewers with the vanishing tradition of handwritten correspondence.
The exhibition will showcase more than 65 handwritten, illustrated letters from some of the most important artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, including Alexander Calder, Dale Chihuly, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Frida Kahlo, Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and Andrew Wyeth. For these artists, words were not enough. Exuberant thank-you notes, endearing love letters, reports and observations of contemporary events, and more, each in the sender’s own distinctive style, provide an intimate view of the artists’ worlds through personal communications to family members, friends and business associates.
“Like Rockwell, many of the artists in this exhibition made a steady income from their illustrations, so it is not surprising that they would embellish their letters with a sketch or two,” says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. “What is fascinating about ‘More than Words’ is how the intimate process of letter writing offered them a greater freedom of self-expression, stretching their powers of observation and ingenuity, often in the most whimsical and charming ways.”
“One should never forget that the power of words is limited,” writes painter Walter Kuhn in a 1913 note illustrated with animated sketches of pinch-faced ladies in berets. His decorated pages and the works of the other artists in the exhibition provide clues to their creative personalities through spontaneous drawings, caricatures, watercolors or collages. Kuhn, who was an organizer of the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, known as the Armory Show, was a painter, etcher, lithographer and popular cartoonist, and his letters to his wife, Vera, display his flair for caricature.
Sculptor Alexander Calder made a map to his home in bold strokes of color that looks just like one of his mobiles. A letter from fiery artist Frida Kahlo is sealed with passionate red lipstick kisses.
“The personal letters featured in ‘More Than Words’ uncover new insights into the personalities and creative processes of some of America’s finest artists,” said Liza Kirwin, the exhibition’s curator and curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art. “In this age of modern technology, the works are designed to inspire us to communicate more thoughtfully and remind us to cherish handwritten, personal communications.”
The exhibition was inspired by Kirwin’s book of the same name, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. The letters were culled from the collections of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution organized the exhibition.
The exhibition kicks off a ten-city national tour. For the tour schedule, www.sites.si.edu.
To complement the exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum, rarely seen poems and letters written and illustrated by Norman Rockwell selected from the museum’s archives will also be on view. The Rockwell works will include “Hail Mary,” a three-page birthday poem to Mary Schafer, wife of Rockwell’s bookkeeper Chris Schafer, and “Virtue Triumphs,” a four-page typewritten draft with preliminary pencil illustrations dedicated to Steve Hibbs, son of then Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs, that begins, “This is a tale of guts and gore, Of dripping blood, but something more, Of virtue overcoming vice, Which after all is rather nice.”
Also on view will be three pictographs (words represented by pictures) by Rockwell that will give viewers an opportunity to sharpen decoding skills.
Three amusing school-absence letters Rockwell wrote for his son Tommy, each illustrated with the reason for his absence, show Rockwell at his most light-hearted. Unlike most of his work-for-hire which was painstakingly planned out and executed in final form in oil paint, Rockwell’s letter embellishments are whimsical, unselfconscious, unstudied images taken straight from his imagination and imbued with his legendary sense of humor.
To accompany the exhibition, Norman Rockwell Museum will present a variety of related programs. For information, nrm.org or 413-298-4100, extension 220.