Editor's note: The following review was republished on December 1, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author. The review was privately printed in October, 2005. If you have questions or comments regarding the review, please contact Scott R. Ferris at 3000 Moose River Road, Boonville, NY 13309. Copyright Scott R. Ferris.
In Review: What's in A Title
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; 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 show's 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.
ORIGINS OF A MULTIFARIOUS TALENT
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?
A BRIEF WORD ON KENT'S SPIRITUALITY
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.
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