In Review: What's in A Title

by Scott R. Ferris




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 documentation, 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."


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