In Review: Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland
A series of programs and an exhibition hosted by the Landfall Trust in partnership with The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, held in St. John's and Brigus, Newfoundland, May 30-September 21, 2014.
Pointed North: Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland & Labrador
Exhibition curated by Caroline Stone. Associated publication: Vital Passage: The Newfoundland Epic of Rockwell Kent, with a catalogue raisonné of Kent's Newfoundland works by Jake Milgram Wien, and a record of the 2014 exhibition by Caroline Stone.
Loneliness is what I want and what I came here for. Fortunately I… am literally carried in my work into a broader––more loving––universe that is as real to me as life itself. This has become my process. I do literally transport myself into the land that with my own pigments I create; painting has become for me the act of populating the realm that I build and that appears to me so splendid… I must confess to you that I am coming to realize and to believe, that I have a distinct spiritual message that is utterly different from anyones and is moreover well worth while.
-Rockwell Kent to Charles Daniel, January 8th, 1915
Throughout the middle months of 2014, Landfall Trust, in partnership with The Rooms, hosted a series of events––an exhibition, lectures, armchair discussions, a film––commemorating the centennial of artist Rockwell Kent's stay in Newfoundland. Based on Kent's positive experience in Newfoundland in 1910 he returned in 1914 (shortly thereafter followed by his wife and children) with the idea of starting an art school. (Kent had successfully conducted a school on Monhegan Island, Maine in 1910, and attempted another in Richmond, New Hampshire the following year.)
In short: Kent was able to create several paintings and drawings but his school never got off the ground; and, due in part to Kent's "own past misdeeds," as he referred to them in his book, After Long Years (Asgaard Press. 1968. p. 15) and Newfoundlanders' "past injuries," as Premier Joseph Smallwood was quoted (Kent, p. 12) the Kent family left Newfoundland, in 1915, under less than amicable terms. (Mutual animosity arose when Kent was suspected of being a spy for the Germans, at the outset of what we now refer to as World War I.) Fast forward to 1968, Premier Smallwood invited Kent and his wife Sally, to return to Newfoundland so that they could "show her regard" for Kent.
AN EXHIBITION AND PROGRAM WERE FORMED
Held at The Rooms in St. John's, and at various locations in Brigus.
According to curator Caroline Stone, in her record of the exhibition (pp.76-77): "what began as a very focused exhibition idea expanded to present Kent at several significant periods of his long career." The exhibition, as she further clarified, was organized in "two principal sections": the first being made up of Kent's Newfoundland related artwork––drawings, paintings prints; the second, work pertaining to Kent, "which [has] a connection to Newfoundland and Labrador through ownership." "A small bonus," she continued, was "the addition of several historical and contemporary works by other artists that have a link to Kent." (A precedent setting, traveling Kent-Newfoundland exhibition and catalogue––Rockwell Kent: The Newfoundland Work––had been organized by Gemey Kelly in 1987 for the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.)
Regarding the development of the centennial programs, Milly Brown––director of programs for Landfall Trust––said, in an email, "[We] just put together a string from various contacts we had and it all fell in place." Sixteen individuals were invited to participate to discuss topics such as "Influences of Brigus and Newfoundland on Kent's Art," "Kent's Life in Newfoundland," "The House of Dread" (a Newfoundland painting by Kent), and Kent in fictional writings. [Neither Gemey Kelly (to my knowledge) nor this author were invited to participate.]
OBSERVATIONS IN AND OUT OF THE GALLERY
Of the few paintings that highlighted the exhibition, a 24 x 96 inches (over all) oil on board The Rooms refers to as "Mural"––"undated (may be inspired by Alaska or Greenland)"––was certainly the largest. This work, as I had mentioned in an extensive appraisal that I wrote for ADAC (Art Dealers Association of Canada) and The Rooms in 2007, represents half of a diptych. Kent created the diptych as two back-to-back panels, mounted on stacks of hay on the back of his Asgaard Farm pick-up truck. The diptych was used as a float in a local Adirondack parade, to advertise his Asgaard Dairy business (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). The concept for the composition of this panel has antecedents in works such as the title pages for Kent's 1930 book, N by E, and his packing label for Rockwellkentiana (1933)––both of which boast Greenland motifs. (The mate to this painting had been owned, at various times, by J. Stewart Gordon and Richard York Gallery, and auctioned by Doyle, of New York.)
Another painting on display was Newfoundland Dirge (a.k.a. Women). This painting, like others that Kent had kept at his studio over an extended period of time, was subject to the artist's recreative whims. In this case, as documented in Ms. Kelly's Dalhousie Gallery exhibition catalogue (p. 47), the artist painted over areas of the composition: virtually obliterating the reclining female figure and the majority of the depicted baby (Fig. 3). Mr. Wien [heretofore, "the author"] had the overpaint removed and in his exhibition catalogue says that this painting was conserved.
(There are other occasions on record, of Kent's artwork being altered posthumously. For example: As I mentioned in my In Review (2005) on the revised edition of Dan Burne Jones's, The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné (Alan Wofsy Fine Arts. 2002), artist/printer Letterio Calapai "restored" a wood engraving and "finished" another––works that Kent had abandoned; And, at least one of Kent's reverse paintings on glass was "completed" well after the artist's death. [More on these in a future essay.])
The author also asserts, when referring to other compositions that the artist was reworking, that Kent "thwarted an accurate reading of the Newfoundland paintings…" that the artist "disavowed the avant-garde Symbolist spirit animating the Newfoundland Epic…" and that the artist's "revisions" were intended to "diminish their sense of cosmic mystery." As if to trump the artist the author boldly states that Newfoundland Dirge was "expertly conserved in New York and returned to its original state" (Fig. 4). (The author refers to one other painting that Kent had reworked––The Shepherd-cat. no. 7 p. 35––as "later revised." True.)
Late in life, as documented in his autobiography, It's Me O Lord (Dodd, Mead & Co. 1955. pp. 288-290), Kent tells us that the tragedy in Newfoundland, for he and his family, was "our hidden but prevailing misery." Of tremendous emotional weight was the tragic loss of life of the seal hunters aboard the S.S. Southern Cross and S.S. Newfoundland––presented in Kent's account, "A Tragedy of Newfoundland" (1914); the onset of World War I; and the consequences of his own "misdeeds"––his backfired pranks, and the wartime suspicions he inspired. As a consequence, the brooding atmosphere, heightened by long periods of darkness, effected the end results of the artist's achievements.
In hindsight, Kent made it clear, through his writings, that he thought lesser of some of the artwork that he created during this period. Perhaps, as a result of his disenchantment, Kent found more value in these canvases as the base for other compositions. Perhaps, as in the manner of canceling a wood engraving block, ––which one would deface––he was canceling these compositions. Regardless, the decision to create and then alter was the artist's to make.
THE CATALOGUING PROCEDURE
It is important to note that the provenance of Kent's artwork is often difficult to follow, due, in part, to his varying methods of "marketing"––outright purchases, trades, gifts, loans. What makes matters worse for Kent scholars is the artist's common practice of retitling his artwork. The author fell into these traps: following are some examples.
In his catalogue entry for Portrait of a Child, the author makes no mention of the paintings association with Kent's friend, the composer, Carl Ruggles. As I note in my book, Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes (Down East Books. 1998. p. 78), the artist inscribed––lower right; just below the baby's head––"To Carl Ruggles From Rockwell Kent." If one looks closely at the illustration of "Portrait" in Kent's book, Rockwellkentiana (Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1933), you can just make out that inscription. In the course of reworking this painting Kent covered over the inscription.
Also with regards to provenance, the author does not address the purported one time ownership of Kent's painting, Bones of Ships, by Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney. In November, 1921, American Art News announced that Whitney purchased seven American paintings for the purpose of giving them to American museums: the article states that she acquired Bones of Ships. An interesting twist to this provenance is that in 1929, Kent traded, with collector Duncan Phillips, "Bones," for a work referred to as "Bonson, Maritime Alps" [etc.]––a painting Phillips had acquired shortly before. Questions of provenance, such as these, should be resolved in a catalogue raisonné.
Regarding titles: the author mentions only a few of the variant titles that the artist and others applied to his paintings: Let's take Portrait of a Child, for example. In "Forgotten Landscapes" (p. 92), I listed six of these titles: some appear in Kent's documents; others in publications that he had a hand in producing.
Kent did not apply titles to many of his works: sometimes giving that task to a paintings "adoptive parents"––he often referred to his paintings as his children; and, often, without acknowledging a reason, he applied more than one title to a work of art. Without the benefit of knowing all variations, one could easily lose track of a paintings provenance, exhibition history, even which painting is being addressed.
ON INTERPRETATION AND PARAMETERS
There is no license on interpretation. There are parameters on a catalogue raisonné.
The author argues for a direct relationship between Kent's To The Stars and his Newfoundland work ("To the Stars"––Andreieff. Also spelled Andreyev, etc. 1937). He says that early in Kent's time in Brigus, Kent and artist Kenneth Hayes Miller communicated about Andreyev's drama; and mention was made of a topically related sketch that Kent rendered.
Without a doubt there is a literary connection. And as you read Kent's writings, you discover numerous influential literary antecedents that the artist carried with him, and evoked in his work, throughout his life. (Beyond Andreyev's To the Stars, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, the Bible, and Darwin's On the Origin of Species, come to mind.)
So what are the parameters that the author set when he included artwork under the Newfoundland umbrella? Is it work that was actually begun in Newfoundland––in 1910 or 1914-1915; work that was begun at an earlier time but completed during this period; work that was conceived during this period but finished much later? Do works created outside of the time Kent actually spent in Newfoundland have to bear characteristics of the locale or might they simply possess conceptual roots?
If To the Stars, Burial of a Young Man (ca. 1908-1911), and The Seiners (ca. 1910-1913) can be included in this catalogue raisonné, then why exclude A Mother and Her Sons (Motherhood, etc. 1913)? The author included this painting in his Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern exhibition catalogue (Portland Museum of Art. 2005), suggesting it "previewed the psychological dislocations evident in his works from Newfoundland" (Wien. "Mythic and the Modern," p. 36). And, this painting possesses compositional as well as palette similarities to the work begun in Newfoundland. And, chronologically, it fits within the artist's first and second trips to Newfoundland.
There are other works Kent created––that fit one or more of the parameters I offer above––that are not included in the catalogue raisonné: including some works that did not come to fruition until the artist's stay in Alaska––1918-1919. The descriptively titled painting, "Recumbent Nudes with Ringed Sun" (Fig. 5), with its nude male and female figures that resemble those in Newfoundland Dirge, but with Alaskan styled peaks in the background, is a good example. (The mountain backdrop in To the Stars more closely resembles New York's Adirondacks.)
Little wonder that Kent didn't follow Alfred Stieglitz and Marsden Hartley's lead (as discussed by Wien, pp. 11-12) and dwell in a hub of "civilization" for inspiration: but instead followed a parallel stream of thought expressed by critic Henry McBride. Writing of Kent's Newfoundland work McBride said that the artist "communed with himself and has apparently been interrogating the stars." McBride beseeched artists to "get out of the rut. There are too many agencies, particularly in New York, that are calculated to make artists think alike" (McBride. The New York Sun. 4/4/1917). Kent did have one foot in the "cultured" world, but his other foot was in the "wastelands and thoughtless seas" (as, in this instance, Hartley would make us believe. Wien p. 12).
Perhaps the boldest of the author's interpretations is his suggestion that the numerical listing of the Newfoundland exhibition brochure "offers additional insight into the way Kent and… Charles Daniel viewed the series… with titles suggesting a larger, philosophical context beyond the local and temporal." The author suggests that the paintings The Shepherd, A Landscape, and A Young Sailor––numbers 1-3 in the brochure––represent "the ministry of Jesus"; that A Young Sailor and Man, the Abyss (3 and 6) represent "the sufferings of Jesus"; that Newfoundland Dirge and The House of Dread (4 and 5) represent "the death of Jesus and lamentations of the community"; that The Voyager Beyond Life and Ruin and Eternity (7 and 8) represent "the Resurrection"; and that A Pastoral (9) represents "the Empyrean Heaven" (Wien. p. 16)
Though the author may not have claimed that Kent was a practicing Christian, he does believe that the artist possessed "a doubting mind wrestling with doctrinaire religion," which was now "responsive to new and radical currents of thought" (Wien. p. 17). Fair enough.
In childhood, Kent was a member in the Church of England. Into his twenties he was writing about Christianity and the teachings of Christ in relationship to his belief in socialism, "Brotherly Love," and Labor. As he evolved away from a theistic belief system he journeyed toward pantheism. The theist sees God as the creator whereas the pantheist sees the creation as God. To quote Kent: "God had become to me the symbol of the life force of our world and universe; a name for the immense unknown. Imponderable, yet immanent in man, in beasts… in the earth, sun, moon and stars. It––I choose the impersonal pronoun as alone consistent with my faith––It was to me a force as un-moral as such manifestations of itself as storms or earthquakes, and for that very reason greatly to be feared. It was as un-moral and impersonal and splendid as its sunset's light on land and sea––and for that reason to be reverenced. I feared and reverenced god. In fear and reverence I painted."
WORKS MISSED OR POSSIBLY MISATTRIBUTED
As is often the case when compiling a catalogue raisonné, some works are missed. Examples of those that are not included: the descriptively titled paintings "Newfoundland Home" and "Newfoundland Harbor"; Our front yard, Brigus, N'f'l'nd; and brush and ink drawings of Kent's Newfoundland house, the harbor, a study for The Shepherd, and a theatrical appearing sketch (Fig. 6 - Fig. 12).
Within the author's notes for his catalogue raisonné, and specifically regarding "Lamb and Child Beneath Crescent Moon" (number 75), he notes that two examples of the announcement were found in Kent's daughter, Barbara Carter's, estate. In a conversation with this author, several years ago, Barbara, a former Art Students League pupil, told me she was the author of one of these works.
A Tragedy of Newfoundland. The author refers to this writing as a "journal," rendered in much the same manner as Kent's autobiographical writings Wilderness, Voyaging, N by E and Salamina. The author's understanding of this essay is incomplete: incomplete in the sense that he was limited to the resources that he notes––a manuscript, in the Carl Zigrosser Papers and a typescript in the Kent Papers, respectively, at the Archives of American Art. He was unaware of the editorial variations that are evident in the handwritten manuscript and the typescript that are in my archives.
As I stated early in this review, there is no license on interpreting an artist's work. However, it is imperative to delineate between one's personal interpretation and an interpretation based on evidence provided by the artist. Moreover, when compiling a catalogue raisonné, there is an obligation to present all known facts.
When one limits the scope of their catalogue raisonné to, say, geography––Newfoundland, as we examine here––versus a standard time line, confusion can arise. In this case, as I address above, there appear to be no concrete parameters on the definition of a "Newfoundland work." And without parameters, we should consider this publication an illustrated catalogue of selected works. It has fulfilled this purpose honorably.
There are several issues that I have not addressed in this review, that are fodder for a Kent scholar to pursue: if for no better reason than to better understand Rockwell Kent and his work. I will briefly mention that, in this author's opinion, the jury is still out on the location of such works as the descriptively titled "Woman Kneeling" and "Nude Family in Landscape": though their timeline certainly falls within the "Newfoundland period."
In a final note on the exhibition, "Pointed North": The Rooms had included, in it's "works pertaining to Kent" section of the exhibition, a watercolor of a church, signed by "Rockwell Kent." As I am familiar with the style of rendering and the signature of this watercolor, I informed Ms. Stone that this work may have been by another Rockwell Kent but not the one featured in this exhibition. By consent with the owner, the watercolor was removed.
To close... I found this exhibition, like all Kent exhibitions, rewarding: for the simple reason that it exposes people to the life and work of an important artist, or avails them an opportunity to view the work afresh.
In Mr. Wien's essay "Vital Passage" (p. 13 and footnote 5, p. 28), he makes reference to two small reverse paintings on glass that were purchased by Arthur Jerome Eddy: which were included in the 1922 Art Institute of Chicago's Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Late Arthur Jerome Eddy. These paintings were purchased from Knoedler Galleries in March of 1920 for $200.00.
The paintings are indeed as descriptively titled in the AIC catalogue: "Girl Tripping Downhill" and "Girl Asleep Under a Tree." The latter is not to be confused with the similar painting on glass, referred to as "Sleeping Maiden with Book," that accompanies Mr. Wien's other essays–The Magazine Antiques, July 2005, p. 70; and Rockwell Kent; The Mythic and the Modern, Portland Museum of Art, 2005, p. 93).
© Scott R. Ferris
The bibliography on page 75 lists my book, Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes (Down East Books. 1998) but fails to include the name of my co-author, Ellen Pearce.
My thanks to Betty Badcock. In memory of Peter Roberts.