“I have something in common with Norman Rockwell,” Thomas Kinkade once reflected. “I like to make people happy.” Right, and that’s also why Krispy Kreme makes sugary donuts and why Joe Francis makes “Girls Gone Wild” DVDs. Regardless, nobody would argue too much against the fact that Kinkade, the fine art painter, is considered in the same “American populist” category as Rockwell, the magazine illustrator. However, Rockwell also confessed that “I am a story teller.” And this is where the similarities abruptly end between Rockwell and the man who so badly wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as his idol.
The July page in the 2012 “Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light” calendar is “Homecoming Hero,” a painting which is an attempt to mine the same emotional territory that Rockwell did so successfully. The scene depicts an American soldier stepping off of a patriotically festooned bus and into the large talent gap between the two artists. Check that: on second look, we see that the soldier is only stepping into a Kinkade painting. But this is a panorama, not a story. Stories must have tension and resolution, and in Kinkade there is always only resolution. It would have been more honest to name it Landscape with Soldier, in the manner of the early French landscapists like Claude Lorrain. Or perhaps a nod to Manet: Patriotic Subject Matter on the Grass (). Or, better yet: Cliche Descending a Driveway.
Let’s look at the painting that Kinkade was aiming for when he did this one: Rockwell’s “Homecoming Marine,” from the October 13, 1945, cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s one of his best works. First of all, context. This represents a real individual from an actual war, specifically the Japanese theater from WWII. Kinkade has said elsewhere that lack of specificity equals universality. This might be true for another artist. In the land of Kinkadia there is no war, period. There is no conflict, only serenity. What, exactly, is this man returning from?
Now, it does not give automatic credibility to an artist just because he is against war. Protest art can be just as insipid (I’m looking at you, Yoko), and art that is obsessed with revealing ugliness can be just as flimsy as art that is overly concerned with looking beautiful. But Kinkade could not even acknowledge in art what soldiers must face in real life. There is not even a symbol of anything anywhere that might represent one of the darker impulses of mankind, and so the tribute is impotent, even insulting. This soldier might as well be returning from a cotton-candy food fight. Save your war stories—Kinkade doesn’t want to hear them. He just wants to profit from them.
Next, look at the group gathered in Rockwell’s portrayal. They are individuals, and they are connected physically and emotionally. There is drama in the poses, the faces, the clasping of hands. It is not all smiles and relief, and it looks as if the homecoming soldier might even be relating details of horrific events. But he belongs to this group of men, as we can see by his picture posted on the wall. We are invited into the conversation. By contrast, Kinkade’s people have no discernible expressions and no connections. The family members wave as if they are saying hello to a neighbor passing by. How do you show an intimate reunion among family members when you are reluctant to depict actual individuals? Trite, marketable sentiments will do. There is more intimacy between the shapes in Mondrian’s geometric grids than there is here. Notice how the human faces are inscrutable, but Kinkade has still found the energy to zoom in and scrawl the name “Merritt” on the soldier’s bag with precision. You can tell where the emotional center of a work is by where the artist has chosen to spend his time, and it’s in gimmicks.
But—the detail! The trees and the flowers! The birds in
particular stand out, especially the flying turkey that is supposed
to be in the background. They are rendered crisply and with more
contrast than the humans. The grouse (?) in the street and its
chicks seem to have covered more ground than the soldier in the
moments since the bus departed. Also, it wouldn’t be a Kinkade
without the many chimneys burning those cozy July fires! And this
time, it really does look as if the house is ablaze. That is not a
cozy, snuggle-up-by-the-fireplace glow. That is a raging inferno
ready to consume the entire dwelling. Perhaps this should be titled
Homeless Hero. It’s a good thing a trained military man is on hand,
because it looks like the battle has just begun.
Previously: January, February, March, April and May and June
Drew Dernavich is a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine (not that cartoonist – the other one) and the co-creator of the cartoon improv show Fisticuffs! He is on Twitter.