I was scrolling through Instagram yesterday when I came upon an altered version of Norman Rockwell's humorous and meta Triple Self-Portrait, and it made cringe—but not for the intended reason.
Rockwell is replaced by a man in a KKK hood—or rather cloaked in it. He is painting not his own hooded likeness but an image of Marvel comics hero Captain America. There are other alterations too: Rockwell's studies of himself are replaced by an image of Hitler. A Rembrandt self-portrait is replaced by the confederate flag. The Roman helmet is inexplicably missing.
It's a skillfully drafted layering of symbols executed by the artist, one Mr. Fish. The message is that when racist America looks at itself, it sees a hero. Which is all rather true. But the pastiche is convoluted, and it all starts with using Norman Rockwell as KKK stand-in.
Rockwell has become synonymous with Americana. But his work hasn't always been about America as heroic. He would leave the Saturday Evening Post in 1963 because he didn't want to paint Nixon on the cover. He devoted his post-Post work to showing the complexities of race in America with a genuine wish for a world where everyone is equal. Rockwell was not a racist. Incidentally, he wasn't a southerner, either.
The modified work has other peculiarities: There's Picasso, Dürer, and Van Gogh, whose self portraits remain in the altered version. Are they part of American racism? Picasso was ardently anti-fascist, making him an unlikely hero for the KKK painter.
In Rockwell's version he's painting himself sans glasses, his pipe sticking jauntily out, his face is not glum or questioning—all contrary to his reflection. In his way, Rockwell was recognizing that such idealized painting isn't a true reflection of how things are. This is a statement of an artist in transition—he left the Post three years later. Far from a stand-in for racism, Rockwell was someone who ultimately saw America for what it was, knew the power of symbols, and wanted a change.