In Review: The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné

by Scott R. Ferris

 



 

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES IN DESIGN

If one were to judge a book solely by its cover, the Revised Edition would pass as a rich, colorful tome. Its dust wrapper provides a handsome alternative to the sharp design of the Original Edition: it displays Kent's lithograph, Sermilik Fjord (DBJ#65), in full, albeit slightly off, color. The rich tonalities and bold modeling Kent created to depict the Greenland terrain are better appreciated by removing the dust wrapper and unfolding it horizontally. The strength of this surface design is carried over inside the hardcover, from the frontispiece to page vii. Within this space the designer has juxtaposed elements from both editions, adding measurably by incorporating illustrations of four of Kent's colored prints (three of these are depicted full page). Five additional prints are illustrated in color, also within the front matter, but to lesser effect.

The Revised Edition was produced in a smaller format but with a substantial increase in the number of pages. The page increase is due, in good part, to the separation of several of the major print illustrations from the related text and imagery, and by the inclusion of two new appendices. One advantage of this separation, as well as of the larger font and line spacing, is that the page is easier to read. The new layout is basically sound design, though occasionally misapplied, as in Appendix I, "Posthumous Prints."

From a visual perspective the "posthumous" section will be remembered more for its white paper. In an attempt to maintain the text-to-the-left, image-to-the-right layout, the designer reduced the size of the image versus working the text around a larger illustration. In some sections the inconsistency of this design becomes more of a distraction than a visual aid.

An appropriate choice was made to exchange the textured paper of the Original Edition for a matte finish in the Revised. Unfortunately, the potential benefits of the matte finish were lost when the designer declined to use new photography. As a consequence, the illustrations in the Revised Edition are drastically darkened, jeopardizing the integrity of Kent's fine lines and subtle shading; extreme examples of this include Seated Nude (DBJ#80) and Princeton Tiger (DBJ#144).

Another design/editorial shortcoming, that could readily have been avoided, pertains to related illustrations and how they are used to clarify the text; I offer three examples that speak to this matter. 1.) Identifying an artist's technical applications through illustrations. The lithograph Glory, Glory Hallelujah (DBJ#134) was conceived as a broadside, of sorts, incorporating figural and textual elements. In the Original Edition this print is illustrated solely in its figural state; in the Revised Edition we see it in its completed form. Appropriately so, the accompanying CR entry provides the explanation that the illustrations fail to do on their own: the figural imagery was created as a lithograph; the text was added later as handset type. 2.) Identifying the print and, where relavent, its variant forms. For example, Supplication (DBJ#8) was printed in an edition of 1560: 60 as the figural composition only, and 1500, with text, as an announcement for an exhibition of Kent's watercolors. It is believed that the total edition was pulled from the same printing block. 3.) The artist's proclivity to recycle his imagery. Kent created a composition -- In the Year of Our Lord -- whose similarities to three other works has led to misattributions. In the Year of Our Lord (DBJ#112) is a wood engraving that depicts a mother, alarmed by an explosion (a spherical ball of light) to her left, shielding her child at her right flank. A second work, considered to be a drawing, depicts the same mother and child, but this time the mother looks toward two people who are fleeing from a burning building, while sparks from the fire blow their way. This second image was reproduced in the newsletter, Equal Justice (9/39), under the title, "The Hunted," in the 9/37 edition of The Labor Defender, in the article, "From This Time Forward, Forevermore" (the article is mis-titled in both CR editions), in Kent's book, This Is My Own (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1940), under the title, "In the Year of Our Lord," and in Andrei Chegodaev's hardcover book, Rockwell Kent (1962 and 63). The third composition, referred to as the "original drawing" for In the Year of Our Lord (though again, varying slightly in composition: reversed; flames shooting towards the couple, who are framed in light; detailed ground cover), was reproduced, relatively recently, in an edition of 159 offset prints, authorized by Plattsburgh State Art Museum -- bringing us to four variant forms of a similar composition. Needless to say, visual support, by means of related illustrations, would have helped identify the variations in each case described above.

I will address two additional issues -- one pertaining to design, the other, regarding new material -- before turning to more specific matters of content.

Kent's wood engraving, Starlight (DBJ#52) was reversed in the Original Edition; the error was corrected in the Revised. A brief statement regarding this correction would have eliminated any lingering doubt as to its proper position. Unfortunately, two other images, this time in the Revised Edition, are illustrated in reverse: The Christmas Tree (DBJ#155 and RR [Robert Rightmire] #0) and the reproduced drawing, Madonna and Child (RR#P2).

There are two new appendices in the Revised Edition: a "Title Index" and "Posthumous Prints." Both of these appendices are welcomed additions, though with the following caveat. It may have provided for easier referencing had the "Title Index" been placed at the beginning of all appendices -- much like a table of contents -- succeed by the "List of Variant Print Titles." All other appendices -- equally visual as textual -- would then follow. "Posthumous Prints" presents an assortment of complex issues (that will be discussed below) that underscore the purpose of a print CR: identifying what constitutes a print; the ethics of posthumous printing; and a somewhat more general issue, the structure of a CR (chronological order is presumed to be the criterion).

 

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