By Sarah Cascone for ArtNet
Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur have remade the paintings with a diverse cast to reflect the US in 2018.
When Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas launched their artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, in 2016, they named it after Norman Rockwell‘s famed series “Four Freedoms,” created in 1943. An illustration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, the paintings, which present an idealized America, identify four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
But as inspirational as Rockwell’s art has been over the past 75 years, the For Freedoms team felt it was time to update the images for 2018, featuring a more diverse cast of characters that more accurately reflects the many different people who call the US home, including Native Americans, immigrants, trans people, and Muslims.
“[Rockwell] was one of the people who really shaped the iconography of America and our visual culture,” Thomas told TIME. “There are a lot of people who are missing in those images.” He and Gottesman enlisted an old friend, photographer Emily Shur, to set about recreating all four images in a way that would paint a more accurate, complete picture of the US, with photographer Wyatt Gallery acting as producer.
There were two photo shoots in LA with over 100 participants; the project spread quickly through word of mouth. There are recognizable faces like actors Rosario Dawson and Jesse Williams, and figures from the art world such as feminist artist Michele Pred and Rujeko Hockley, a curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. There is Japanese-American filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura, interned as a child during World War II, and musician and musician and activist Kiran Gandhi. With so many different faces, winnowing it down to just four final images was impossible. Instead, there are 82.
Just as Rockwell’s original paintings became overnight sensation—whatever the equivalent of “going viral” was in 1943—For Freedoms’ new version of the images are being widely shared on social media, including by celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Jada Pinkett-Smith. The photographs are also among the many artworks installed on billboards across the country for For Freedom’s “50 State Initiative,” featuring more than 300 artists and aimed at encouraging political participation ahead of next week’s midterm elections.
It’s interesting to note that despite the lasting impact of “Four Freedoms,” the Office of War Information initially rejected the paintings—a decision that was wisely overturned following their publication in the Saturday Evening Post. The government sold millions of “Four Freedoms” posters to support the war effort, and the original canvases went on a nationwide tour.
Fittingly, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, has organized a new traveling exhibition, “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms,” to introduce the paintings to the current generation. After debuting at the New-York Historical Society this spring, the show, which contains its own contemporary reimaginings of the images, is currently on view at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, through January 13, 2019, and will travel through fall 2020.
See more photos from the new series below.