Specialist in the artwork of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971)
 
Essays on Rockwell Kent
In the Presence of Light. Foreword to the reprint of Rockwell Kent's 1935 autobiographical tome, Salamina (Wesleyan University Press. Middletown, CT. 2003).


IN THE PRESENCE OF LIGHT


Speech at its highest art—its metaphors and symbols, its rhythms and harmonies, its moods, its forms, its being—is derived by man from his environment.
Rockwell Kent, Salamina.

The manuscript for Salamina—Rockwell Kent's Greenland Book, as it is otherwise known—first arrived at the publishing offices of Harcourt, Brace and Company (New York City) in an odorous caribou skin parcel. Shipped from Igdlorssuit, Greenland, on March 14 1935, the manuscript, along with eighty drawings, docked in New York on June 20. By October a limited author's and first trade editions were simultaneously released. Since 1961, the manuscripts (the first and final drafts), along with the typescript, have gathered dust in a cabinet within the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Moscow).

The October publications were wrapped in a dust jacket that displayed a tantalizing portrait of our Greenland heroine—Salamina—bathing in an icy fjord. Kent, an irredeemable humorist, and no bluenose himself, undoubtedly intended to titillate the reader. Another edition followed within two years. This subsequent printing was cloaked in a jacket that portrays an eagle, defiantly poised, as if to safeguard Kent's Greenland paradise against a world rapidly turning on it's head. A detail of Kent's painting Seal Hunter: Greenland, which covers the edition you hold in your hands, represents two aspects of Kent's life and work, as abbreviated in this tome: his conveyance of his own spirituality through a modern interpretation of light and the life of the laborer who enriches himself by providing for the good of society.

While considering the appropriate contents for this foreword I re-read several of Kent's prefatory writings: many were solemn, some were witty, others, prophetic. The "precarious, card-house nature of our social edifice" was the topic of his introduction to the early editions of Salamina. Kent's compassion for the human condition was a consistent act, felt (and documented) by the same man that proclaimed that he did not renounce his citizenship when he picked up the brush or pen. As you will read, the forthcoming chapters entitled "On Things" and "On Mutual Aid"––a direct reference to sociopolitical philosopher Peter Kropotkin's essay, "Mutual Aid" (1889-1895)––tell much about Kent's belief in socialism as well as the failings of Progress and self-centeredness over personal betterment and mutual support for the welfare of the community.

Salamina is autobiographical in that it recounts a brief chapter in Kent's long life—his 1931 through 1932 stay in Igdlorssuit; it is ethnographical in that it documents 1930s west Greenland culture; and it's a treasure trove of art historical and philosophical squibs for the student of Kent. At the time of publication, Salamina was Kent's longest literary work and, according to a few critics, was considered to be his richest. In many respects it is the rightful forebearer––for its narrative styling, illustrations, and design––of his voluminous 1955 autobiograhpy, It's Me O Lord.

Rockwell Kent's writings were never meant to be literary masterpieces. They were accounts of his adventurous life, penned on the spot, of which Salamina is literally and figuratively a classic example. Indeed, Kent spent much of his first several months during his 1934 through 1935 stay in Igdlorssuit close to the pages that would become Salamina. Unlike the story of N by E, which tells of Kent's journey and brief visit to Greenland for the first time, Salamina hits the turf running. The author immediately involves us in a local event: a story about a performance by the local angakok or "wizard" (the Danish trader and amateur magician, Trolleman). Kent encourages the reader to accompany him on an enjoyable though not frivolous, informative but not prosaic, account of his life among a now lost colony of primitive peoples.

At the time of Salamina's first publication, Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Salamina "has in it a moving sense of the wonder of the virgin universe, the dignity of mountains and of sea, and a rarely intimate picture of Greenlanders at play." Kent's "style is abrupt, rhapsodic, hearty...it is good anthropology and even better adventure narrative," wrote a reviewer for The New Yorker. This is why Kent's sagas continue to be reissued.

Marie Ahnighito Peary, daughter of the North Pole explorer Robert Peary, and a birth child of Greenland, commented on her enjoyment of the story in a critique she wrote for The Saturday Review. She approved of Kent's observations of the native peoples and the terrain they inhabited. Furthermore, unlike some of the haughty desk side reviewers of the time who considered Kent's writing "loquacious," Peary appreciated his "chatty and familiar style which has the advantage of presenting places and people in an unforgettably vivid manner." She recognized that Kent was an artist first, and that his viewpoint of this one group of Eskimos was as legitimate as any other's. Peary considered Kent's "word pictures" and illustrations a "revelation to all those who think of Greenland as a desolate, unimpressive island, peopled with uncouth savages." As she well knew the beauty and grandeur of the land were always present, but it took Kent to capture that majesty, to bring it all back home for the "less adventurous spirits to see and enjoy."

Maps of Greenland
Click Image to Enlarge.
Meddelelser om Grønland
(Maps of Greenland),
C.A. Reitzel Boghandel, Copenhagen, 1921.
Map in the public domain.
It is little wonder that Peary held this view of Kent's chronicle for the artist considered his arctic travels in grave detail. His pre-excursion readings included A Description of Greenland (1818) by Hans Egede and Ossian Elgstrom's Moderna Eskimaer (1916). In addition he acquired atlases—"Meddelelser om Grønland" (1921) and "Vestkysten af Grönland" (1888)—for use during his sojourn. Once in Igdlorssuit Kent carefully calculated his impact upon the villagers when planning the building site for his house. As he describes in Salamina, "I had hoped to be an observer in Greenland rather than one observed, and naturally preferred looking down on others to being looked down upon"—even to the extreme of choosing a rock littered site, nearer the base of a mountainous overhang, that resembled a "battlefield." Kent felt that by "lying uphill from the settlement, it was enough removed from the other house sites to promise privacy, and yet so reasonably situated as to offer no suggestion that seclusion had been sought for."

Once settled into his abode, Kent required a kifak, a "housekeeper": someone to keep his stove lit, his food from freezing, make his clothes—his kamiks (boots) and anoraks—and occasionally peel them off. Salamina, for whom this book is titled, became his kifak. Along with Salamina came her two children, one of whom, her daughter Helena, stayed the duration.

The traditional Greenland home in 1935, we learn, was a single room turf structure, barely "ten feet square and scarcely man's height high," that would accommodate, or compact, a family of six or seven, with an additional distant relative or three. As Kent informs us, "they ate from one pot, and they slept all huddled close for warmth and happiness on one broad bed—the sleeping platform. There had the children been conceived and born; there would, at last, the parents die. Life was an open bed to Greenlanders."

These tiny dwellings, like the Greenlanders themselves, were indeed small in structure but generous by every other means. Into these cramped rooms passed a familiar parade of guests. Villagers hosted regular kaffemiks—coffee parties—to help while away endless winter nights. Baronial feasts were not uncommon. Traditional foods included boiled seal, fjord cod, halibut, and matak—"that succulent hide of the white whale," Kent wrote, that was also used for whips and lines. The hunter who devoured a serving of newly beached whale during the initial carving process was thoroughly besmeared with blood.

Kent's knowledge of the local Eskimo language was limited to, as he wrote, "a few mispronunciations of the names of common things." Nevertheless he relates to us, the reader, an intimate understanding of Greenland life. While reading Salamina we discover that it was socially acceptable for the Greenland husband to offer his wife in exchange for cigarettes, schnapps, or Kent's pipe: we also learn of the perseverance of pagan ways 200 years after the young Norwegian Lutheran priest, Hans Egede, re-established Greenland as a Christian settlement. We discover that village elders were still able to resurrect the music and dramatic dances of their ancestors, and recount tales from their "Ancient Testament"—stories of the spirits Mitatdlussokune (the helping spirit) and Arnakune (the female spirit)—much to the dismay of the local catechist who considered these activities to be "the outlawed past." We read that Kent learned how to maneuver a kayak and handle dogs to drive his sledge; and how he came to appreciate the climate in its dangerously infinite variety—the balance of life and death in Greenland was weighed by one's knowledge of and respect for nature's cycles.

Regardless of the physical and emotional challenges Kent faced, he believed, as he wrote in Salamina, that "all solitudes, no matter how forlorn, are the only abiding-place on earth of liberty." Few other American artists, since Frederic Church and William Bradford, would expose themselves to such hardships in exchange for the exhilaration and inspiration nature offered. From Kent's window on Igdlorssuit he "came to feel—as though for the first time in [his] life—the beauty of the world!" Living, virtually outdoors, was "far profounder a devotion...than any Godward posturing of conscious worshippers! There," in Greenland, "was God's countenance itself, its light, its majesty of form, its power of life and death."

Kent was an insatiable doer of heroic adventures and multifarious tasks. Throughout his career, Kent's work often expressed a sense of boundless energy. As a young painter his brush strokes were barely contained as we see in many of his Monhegan canvases circa 1907. Take a close look at the strokes that define Winter, Monhegan—on the surface as well as the underpainting—they are slashed on the canvas as aggressively as the paint we see in Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. The energy conveyed on Kent's canvases is emotionally or some would say spiritually charged, the manifestation of a unitary experience perhaps. It has been said that William Blake had a vision of a tree imbued with angels. Kent perceived "truth and beauty emanating as the light from Heaven, God's abode." That same force, now harnessed in his Greenland canvases as seamless swaths of limitless hues, is no less energized.

As a painter, printmaker, and designer Kent was a "modern artist." During the "nineteen teens" his paintings visualized his oppressed emotional state by depicting modeled, representational symbols in the style of Franz Marc. However, by the 1930s several of his most successful paintings were devoid of symbolic elements, emphasizing instead, vibrant light and stacked horizontal planes—a precursory view of what would come in the work of Mark Rothko. Kent matured in an era of rapidly evolving technology, though unlike many modernist of his time, he did not find the machine—its design, its sense of progress, its urban origins—deeply inspirational. Instead he found his muse in the remote, austere landscapes of Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Greenland, and closer to home in northern New York State and New England.

Kent's adventurous spirit has stirred the imagination of countless other artists and authors. It has been said that George Bellows, upon first seeing Kent's paintings of Monhegan Island, Maine, was envious of his friends accomplishments and vowed to go to the island to paint better compositions. Early in his career Fairfield Porter was influenced by Kent's illustrative work and depictions of Monhegan. Harry Cimino's illustrations for Seven Horizons, and Edward Shenton's drawings for This Is My Country and Northern Lights paid homage to Kent's creativity—Shenton's illustrations for Northern Lights virtually duplicate many of Kent's images from N by E. Author Gretel Ehrlich took all three of Kent's Greenland books—N by E, Salamina, and Greenland Journal—with her on her trip to that largest of islands, and quotes generously from each in her own adventure story, This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. And in Barry Lopez's book, Arctic Dreams, he discusses Kent's relationship with the wilderness and notes that Kent "argued in his art and heroic prose for the essential dignity of human beings and for the existence of man's Godlike qualities."

Kent's visual and literary creations continue to uplift the virtual adventurer and inspire the more expressive soul. Like his polar explorer/author friends Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen, Kent has preserved a lost chapter in human history. In his introduction to Greenland Journal, published nearly 30 years after Salamina, Kent reflects that these books became a "record, intimate and authentic, of the past, of a way of life that has vanished beyond recall, and of a people the remains of whose ancient, cultural identity are fast being submerged by the tides of 'progress.'"

Let's partake in this little known world Rockwell Kent considered paradise. Slip on your anorak, step into your kamiks, and without further ado, we'll pull back the curtains and see what magic our friend Trolleman is up to.


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