Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
Essays on Rockwell Kent
In Review: The Mythic and the Modern was privately printed in October 2005. It was republished online by Resource Library (Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc.).


Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine
Guest Curator: Jake Milgram Wien
Catalog written by Jake Milgram Wien
Introductory essay, "Recalling Rockwell," by Richard V. West.

By Scott R. Ferris

If you long for a thrill, go...and look at the...pictures...of Rockwell Kent...he knocks you off your pins before you can sit down with these broad, realistic, powerful representations...
James Huneker, New York Sun, 2 April 1907

Some of this same commendation could be used to describe Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern. It's a fabulous show. Fabulous because of individual works that represent the best in Kent, including: the oil paintings Afternoon on the Sea; Winter, Monhegan; Burial of a Young Man; Down to the Sea; Snow Fields; Men and Mountains; Parry Harbor; Dead Calm: North Greenland; Blue Day; May: North Greenland; My Daughter Clara; North Wind; The Trapper; and studies for Toilers of the Sea and of Manana and Gull Rock; and the drawings for the book, Wilderness, the illustrated poem to Marie Sterner, the map of Hobcaw Barony, the portraits of Carl Zigrosser and Lillian LaBatt, some of the Hogarth, Jr. offerings such as––"The Collector," "The Social Zoo," "Pool Reflection" and a few each of the Moby-Dick and Paul Bunyan illustrations. The show and companion catalog are noteworthy because they bring out a sampling of Kentiana––works created by the artist––that few have seen in person, and morsels of obscure information. And the show is inviting because of the ambiance created by the lighting and sea grass green walls that tug like an undertow, pulling you into the galleries. Notwithstanding, once the visitor steps over the threshold, from didactic-panel-emblazoned entryway into the first gallery, the premise of this exhibition, as proposed by the shows title––The Mythic and the Modern––is forgotten. Why is that?


...the title is a flare fired from an ocean liner that has yet to crest the horizon; it lights up the night sky regardless of whether the vessel is sinking or there's a party onboard.
Roberta Smith. "Field Guide To Judging A Show By Its Title," New York Times, 4 September 2005

Recent exhibitions of the work of Rockwell Kent––Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent (Norman Rockwell Museum. 2000) and The View from Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy (Adirondack Museum. 1999) among them––possessed titles that anticipated the shows content. These shows presented artwork that almost exclusively supported their themes––Kent's travels and work across the globe, and the artist's depiction of his Adirondack home and his views from that perspective. This exhibition struggles to do both. A full examination of its proposal is repeatedly derailed by peripheral interests. Instead of pursuing two theories––the "mythic" and "modern" in Kent's work––it should have remained focused on one.

The layout of the exhibition accentuates the problems that are created by a lack of focus. In this case the physical separation––two floors of display space––removes the viewer from any conceptual continuity. (When I walked the galleries of this exhibition I overheard several people say that they enjoyed the downstairs better than the upstairs, as if they were seeing two shows. Was the modern separated from the mythic or were they integrated?) And internal divisions––separating objects by chronology and subtopics––further disconnects the viewer from a unified theme.

Anyone who is familiar with the artwork that forms the basis of this exhibition will recognize that it belongs or recently belonged to the guest curator, Mr. Wien: several of the Hogarth, Jr. drawings and paintings on glass, the To Thee, America! and American Export Lines drawings, "Greenland Winter" (cat. 125#), "Salamina" (cat. #122), etc. Some of these categories are over represented, obfuscating the shows intent. Whereas independent examinations of these categories would have, will! benefit Kent scholarship.


Mr. Wien appears to frame his arguments on the artist's spiritual and national centric nature, without fully examining either. The foundation of these characteristics was clearly laid in Kent's youth. Some of the most influential factors effecting the artist's development included: the polar economic conditions under which he was raised––the premature death of his father left his family living in the concurrent worlds of wealth and genteel poverty; his Austrian maid, Rosa, who taught him German, the art of social graces and who took him on wilderness junkets around his home; an art study excursion with his "Auntie Jo" (Josephine Holgate), to Europe, in 1895; and his diverse cultural experiences, including innumerable readings from such works as Struwwelpeter––the children's book that inspired his pursuit of vegetarianism and his embrace of tolerance, and the Bible; and by Darwin, and somewhat later, the English Romantics, Emerson, Blake, Thoreau, Whitman, Nietzsche, Tolstoi, Kropotkin, the Nordic Sagas and Coomaraswamy, among others; all of which nourished the seeds from which Kent blossomed.

That Kent was raised on both sides of the track is especially poignant because, among other things, it explains how he could live in the parallel worlds of socialism and capitalism (a concern expressed by some critics and lay persons alike) It also suggests that his broader view of the world played out in other aspects of his life––e.g. creating dissimilar artwork at the same time (often "high" vs. "low"); reading both sides of an issue, etc. Considering a man of Kent's talent, drive and character, is there any wonder why he was successful, and fairly well off?


It could be said that Kent was a conduit between the transmundane and the artwork he created. And in the process of channeling, or opening a stream of consciousness, he enjoyed a "unitary" experience, a oneness with Nature, with the sublime. My colleague, Dr. Francis V. O'Connor, uses the term "unitary" in his review, "William Blake (1757-1827): Poet, Artist, Mystic & Prophet" (Commentary No. 11C. 2001). He suggests that "the mystical experience is a purely secular perception of oneness with an aspect of Nature." He goes on to say, "such a 'unitary' experience is usually, but not inevitably, colored by the belief system into which the person so bestowed was born." Kent all but states that he had "unitary" experiences, and pantheistic tendencies, when he wrote that "God" is the
symbol of the life force of our world and universe; a name for the immense unknown. Imponderable, yet immanent in man, in beasts and birds and bugs, in trees and flowers and toadstools, 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. That mood forbids defining art as self-expression.
Kent. It's Me O Lord. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1955)
I am convinced that a great number of critics, academics and museum goers alike have no idea what a wilderness experience is like, let alone a "unitary" one. If one cannot commune with Nature then one has little chance of understanding Kent's spirituality as depicted in his simple, direct, reductive landscapes.

what is MODERN?

American as Plymouth Rock or his beloved Adirondack Mountains, enamoured alike of the lonely spaces of the Far North and of the impending social revolution, mystic in penetration but declaring flatly for a representational art, Rockwell Kent has been likely in any reckoning to fall between the realists and the anti-realistic moderns... Never one of the moderns in placing abstract design before transcription, never seriously distorting the seen aspect, he yet fulfilled that other requirement of the new school, that the artist should convey the feeling rather than merely the look of the posing person or the observed place.
Sheldon Cheney. The Story of Modern Art (New York: Viking Press. 1941)

To view Kent as a modernist one needs to consider what makes a modernist "modern." Cheney, as quoted above, suggests that modern art is as much about conveying feeling as it is about expressing it in new ways. H. H. Arnason states that "the work of art is ultimately a consequence of the emotions, of the inner spirit of the artist rather than of observed nature" (History of Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. et al. 1977, 2nd ed.). Similar definitions have been made by several other art historians. Modern art has crossed many boundaries from its inception (debatably as early as the work of Goya) to today, with Kent easily fitting within these parameters.

No one generation or artistic movement has a license on the spiritual––the "sublime"––or the modern. In Karen Wilkin's review of The Mythic and the Modern ("Portrait of an Enigmatic Artist." Wall Street Journal. 8/17/05) she implies that the Abstract Expressionists held such a license. Quoting Barnett Newman, she writes: "In our search for the sublime, we had to reject the mock-heroic, voluptuous, and superficial realism." Is that to say that Newman had a better understanding of the sublime than Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent or Arthur Dove, for example? Or that the Abstract Expressionists, if that is who Newman was speaking for, had a different "modern" way of expressing themselves? To Kent, the sublime was both tangible and intuitive––"God" was ever-present in the (natural) world around him.


As a modern artist Kent comes across most convincingly as a "realist," not as a Symbolist. (Kent has been pegged, in various writings, as a Symbolist, Realist, Precisionist and Social Realist, among other categories.) In this sense he is more like his fellow Robert Henri school classmate, Edward Hopper––they both employed representational styles to convey an inner meaning. Where they differ, however, is that Hopper often depicts something that is familiar to us––an abandoned city street scene, e.g., Early Sunday Morning––whereas Kent captures the unfamiliar––a truly natural phenomenon: the barren arctic land and seascape, e.g. Blue Day. Hopper often addresses human emotion––loneliness, anxiety––whereas Kent speaks of the eternal question: our place in the universe. It is this lack of intimacy with the wilderness landscape in Kent's oeuvre that befuddles the viewer.

The classification pendulum swings in the opposite direction when we consider Kent with artists such as Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. The commonality of their work is the Nature/spirit relationship, versus the representational similarities we see between Kent and Hopper. Compare Kent's painting Dead Tree (Tierra del Fuego) with Dove's, Ferry Boat Wreck; Rocky Inlet (Monhegan) with O'Keeffe's From the White Place; and Mirrored Mountain: South Greenland with Hartley's Mount Katahdin. In truth, Kent lies somewhere in art historical limbo, a taxonomist's conundrum.


When Rockwell Kent passed away he left an exhaustive paper trail––thousands of letters and manuscripts; articles, books, photography and ephemera by and about him––that is still being tapped for original material today. Despite, and perhaps because of the sheer volume of documents, the culling of factual tidbits is no sinecure. As with many publications on the artist the catalog for this exhibition possesses its share of errors. Following are a few examples found in the text.

The painting Artist in Greenland (cat. #126), circa dated 1935 in this catalog as well as in all related publicity, was actually created in 1960. In referring to this and another painting that was commissioned by Jacquie and Dan Burne Jones, Kent states: "...I was able to work more and more on the Greenland picture and finished it. And both pictures are so nearly like the originals––expect for the dogs and me in the foreground of your picture, replacing and outnumbering in dogs the dog-team of the other––that I would find it quite impossible to detect the difference between the original and the copy" (RK to Jones, 9/10/60). Additional correspondence between Kent and the Jones' supports this statement.

Post Arrival is referred to in the catalog as "Arrival of the Post." This may be an English reversion of a Russian translation of one of Kent's titles for this piece––Post Arrival (see "Rockwell Kent 1882-1971"; Soviet exhibition cat. #26; illus.). Two other titles are documented for this work: Sunlit Mountains (a title penned by Kent on a 35 mm slide of this work) and "Mail, Greenland" (see "List of Rockwell Kent paintings in the USSR"––from notes taken by Richard Stowe of SUNY College at Plattsburgh, Sally Kent Gorton, et al., circa 1978). This painting is not found in Kent's final inventory of works initially given to the Soviet peoples in 1960; it was a later gift, given perhaps as late as 1965.

Time and the artist's whim have been responsible for deteriorating or altering some of the artwork that is on display in this exhibition. Documenting the restoration of these works, in this catalog, would have been of immense scholarly value. The reverse painting on glass, descriptively titled "Sleeping Maiden with Book" (cat. #53), is one example of a restored work. Another, more prominent piece is the painting Newfoundland Dirge (cat. #29). Kent had painted over much of the canvas, presumably to rework the composition. (Reworking his compositions, over an extended period of time, is well documented.) This painting was left unfinished at his death. What we see in this exhibition is a relatively current "restoration" of the work. This brings up the questions: Why was the "restoration" done, and are the colors and other details that we see similar to those that would have been visible when Kent last exhibited the work; were there three or four figures in the original composition?

Other scholarly opportunities that were missed include: creating a system, within this text, of documenting actual versus descriptive titles (using quotation marks versus italics, for example); clarifying dates, of artwork, that are clearly questionable. Mr. Wien merely notes these problems in his preface to "Works in the Exhibition" (p. 175).

A few miscellaneous mistakes that have been identified include:
––The illustration of A Young Sailor, a.k.a. "Man on a Mast," is reversed (fig. 16, p. 22).
––In referring to Kent's canvas, Winter, Monhegan, Mr. Wien states that it was "probably originally called The Shadows of Evening, as listed in the Clausen Galleries 1907 exhibition brochure" (see Wien, p. 147, f12). This is not the case, Shadows of Evening is another 1907 painting.
––The portrait of Lillian LaBatt (fig. 88, p. 114) is referred to as an ink drawing when it may have been rendered with sepia pencil.
––On p. 129 Mr. Wien mentions that the painting This Is My Own is in a private collection; it is owned by the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. An oil study for this work is in a private collection.
––Mr. Wien states that "the public first saw" Kent's painting A Mother and Her Sons during February and March of 1914, at the National Arts Club (Wien p. 37). Documentation––an exhibit catalog and newspaper reviews––shows that this canvas was previously exhibited––12/16/13-1/4/14––in "A Group of Modern Painters" at the Daniel Gallery.

Much of the final decade of Kent's life, as outlined in "Chronology" (p. 168), is lacking important information, including: the dates of several of Kent's return trips to the Soviet Union; his return trip to Newfoundland, by invitation of Premier Smallwood (an especially important event in the artist's life); and the publication of Kent's Greenland Journal (1963) and the story of his last Newfoundland visit, After Long Years (1968).

Also in the "Chronology" section Mr. Wien states that Kathleen and Rockwell Kent's fourth child, Barbara, was born with the name "Hildegarde." Barbara perpetuated the same legend in her interview with Frederick Lewis in his film documentary, Rockwell Kent. Barbara later questioned this story, motivating her son Eric to unearth a 1943 "Certificate of Birth": a "true copy," of Barbara's birth certificate, "as recorded in the Register of Births." According to the Registrar General of the Dominion of Newfoundland, Barbara Kent was born with that name. One can presume by this that Barbara was nicknamed, Hildegarde. Barbara died in 2002, not 2003 as Mr. Wien records.

The "Solo Exhibitions, 1907-1969" section (pp. 159-161) is riddled with problems. Several exhibits are not accounted for; numerous known titles and dates are missing; exhibits that were picked up by other venues, sometimes after the original exhibition had been launched, are not mentioned. Apparently it is little known that the last solo exhibit of Kent's work opened seven days before he died: Appropriately enough it was held by his old friends, the Weyhe Gallery, exhibiting some of his greatest work, the "Drawings for Moby Dick."


To summarize, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern falls short of its mission––to define the "mythic" and the "modern" in Kent's work. Perhaps Mr. Wien floundered under the weight of too much baggage––the broad parameters that encompass modern art and the breadth and depth of Kent's oeuvre. Before heading down the runway he should have discarded the tangential artwork as well as the redundant and lesser works, and focused on art that was more relevant to his argument. The painting Calm (Tierra del Fuego) would have been more pertinent to the shows thesis than either Admiralty Sound, Tierra del Fuego (cats. #86 and #85); April Ice (Greenland) and/or Greenland Gothic could have supplanted "Greenland Winter (cat. #125)," Early November: North Greenland (cat. #120) and/or Post Arrival (cat. #129). (If nothing else, Mr. Wien could have explored the possibility that these minimalist works by Kent may have had some influence on successive generations of artists such as the Color Field painters.)

Having seen the exhibit several times, and read the companion catalog, I am still left with several questions including: Is all that Mr. Wien meant by the "mythic," Kent's interpretation of another's mythology (Melville's, Shephard's, Stravinsky's)? Why wasn't the artist's interpretation of the mythic in his native land, or Ireland for that matter, represented in this show? Does the abundant sampling of Kent's New England and Newfoundland work, as seen in this exhibition, serve to define the mythic or the modern, or both?

Mr. Wien writes: "With the passage of time storms dissipate, and today, more than thirty years after Rockwell Kent's death in 1971, so has the political storm that riled his later years" ("Introduction," p.5). Unfortunately this is not true, as evidenced as recently as last year. In the 16 September 2004 edition of the New York Observer, art critic Hilton Kramer wrote a review of the exhibition, Seeing Red: Rockwell Kent and the Farnsworth Art Museum, he titled, "Two Rockwell Kents: A Moby-Dick Etcher And Stalin Admirer." Kramer's venomous commentary is a fine example of red baiting incarnate. Ignoring Mr. Kramer's shallow statements, as perhaps Mr. Wien has, only perpetuates the misguided "Cold War attitude" toward Kent, and impedes a fuller understanding of his significant contribution to the arts.

Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern has rekindled and hopefully broadened an interest in Kent's art and life. With refinement, a future exhibition and scholarly text will strengthen our understanding of Kent's achievements and solidify his standing in the pantheon of American art.

© Scott R. Ferris
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