Monday, May 12, 2014

The Last of the Americans: Rockwell Kent and Our Times

by Marian Kester Coombs

Whatever time it is, it’s time to appreciate Rockwell Kent. Americans of his kind are so rare we have to keep punching ourselves to believe they ever existed. It took me five chance encounters with this semi-forgotten figure – three in used bookstores and two in art museums – to realize how odd and wrong was my ignorance of him.

Rockwell Kent was one of America’s best-known, most popular painters and designers in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Born in 1882, he hailed from Tarrytown, New York, heart of the Hudson River School of painting, and showed artistic ability from an early age. His ancestral Kents and Rockwells had come ashore more than two hundred years before; in his second autobiography, It’s Me O Lord (1955), Kent traces his ancestry back through a long line of carpenters and fierce freedom-lovers who built fortune upon fortune in the New World. He grew up a member of America’s founding generations: privileged, ingenious, self-confident, and liberal, as in free-thinking. That masterful sense of self got Kent through many a scrape and ordeal as he blasted lustily through life.

Kent’s cohort missed having to serve in the two world wars, and were too canny and well-educated to be raptured by jingoism; nonetheless they may have felt the need to test themselves physically and mentally in more extreme ways than normal precisely because of that lack of opportunity to soldier. Surely this may account for some of the wild risks Kent repeatedly ran. He exulted in surviving close encounters much as warriors glorify war, having come through it unscathed. Nonetheless, he was a lifelong pacifist, a lover of Peace, a hater of War and its perpetual lobby; and if he was never in a position to conscientiously object to induction, Kent made up for it by refusing to kowtow to HUAC and having his passport revoked by the State Department.

Rockwell Kent loved painting and drawing and the making of all things, from instruments to dishware, books to houses. His graphic illustrations, employing pen and ink, dry brush, lithography, wood engraving (xylography) and block prints, reveal the training in architecture he received at Columbia. But oil painting was his “first love,” and by 1903 he was pursuing it at the New York School of Art, where he encountered both the elegant William Merritt Chase and the raw Robert Henri of the art-for-the-masses Ashcan School. Henri encouraged him to get out and paint Nature and The People en plein air, suggesting Kent move to rugged Monhegan Island off Maine to get started.

The Monhegan years kindled Kent’s fame. His contact with the island’s fisher folk profoundly affected him, and thenceforth he felt the need to become what he was painting: lobsterman, laborer, house carpenter, furniture maker, well digger, lighthouse keeper, sailor, farmer. When his Maine landscapes had their New York debut in 1907, The Sun’s art critic raved, “The paint is laid on by an athlete of the brush.” Fellow painters were awed by his power to capture the spirit of land and life in so many media. Guy Pène du Bois (with envy) called his work quintessentially “American.” Canada’s Group of Seven were profoundly influenced by him. He had a beautiful hand.

Monhegan also led Kent to the first of three wives: Kathleen Whiting, niece of grand eccentric painter Abbott Thayer. Their union lasted from 1908 to 1925, and saw the birth of five surviving children. Kent’s constant impulsive or perhaps compulsive flights to the ends of the earth – the Alaska Territory, Greenland, Iceland, Tierra del Fuego – where he could paint in peace, engorged with exotic new subject matter (like Thomas Cole at Mont Désert or Frederic Edwin Church in the Andes); live simply amongst the hardy natives (like Tommy in “Brigadoon”); confront his true self, which he (like Zane Grey) believed could be encountered “in the wilderness alone”; and, a bit less airy-fairily, gather material for books to sell to support everyone – inevitably distressed his marriages.

A classic Rockwell Kent situation befell the family when Kent decided in 1914 to expatriate and paint in Newfoundland. They’d been there scarcely a year before being deported on suspicion that Herr Kent was a German spy: he yodeled and sang German songs as he strode about, named his second daughter Hildegarde, and refused to wallow in anti-Kraut vituperation. But Kent was simply a convinced contrarian. Ideologies meant nothing to him. He was as enthused by Teddy Roosevelt’s exhaustive vigor as he was by the Wobblies’ selfless camaraderie. His notion of being an American was to champion “the little man” – the man for whom America had been invented.

Another typical “situation” was his sojourn on a remote Alaskan island with eldest son Rocky, then nine years old. “In quietness the soul expands,” wrote Kent; wilderness held the seed, the evergreen promise of freedom, a promise that even democracies continually betrayed. Anxious to provide for the family as well as slake his growing passion for ascetic and aesthetic liberty in a Northern landscape, in 1918 Kent rented and rebuilt a lean-to on Resurrection Bay where the two of them explored and beheld and communed. Although they both nearly perished more than once, Kent returned after several months with the stuff of two best-sellers (Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska and A Northern Christmas) profusely illustrated with vivid ink drawings, but more important, with a trove of canvases and sketches that have been called the most successful effort ever to reproduce the beauty of the far North – the cold gold glare of the midnight sun, the glacier ice that absorbs red and yellow spectra and reflects back purest blue, the infinite tones of white – what Douglas Brinkley calls “the kaleidoscopic radiance of wild Alaska” and Kent called its “luminous abyss.” Monet expressed the plein air painter’s struggle well: “I want to grasp the intangible. It's terrible how the light runs out. Color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three or four minutes at most.”

In 1913, Kent was up in Winona, Minnesota, constructing a mill when the Armory Show suddenly detonated without him in New York. The snub stung him, but four years later, he himself broke with the avant-garde by resigning from direction of the Society of Independent Artists show over entries like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal. Along with Hopper, Bellows, Wood, Curry and Benton, among others, Kent was not buying the self-serving modernist myth that deliberate ugliness and nihilism were the destiny of art.

In 1929, after returning from yet another near-fatal but excitingly written and brilliantly illustrated adventure – yachting with two other men from Newfoundland to Greenland, where they wrecked on a barren coast and were rescued by Eskimos and Danes – Kent embarked upon yet another career as a book illustrator. Moving easily in New York society, he designed colophons for Viking Press, Random House and the Modern Library, logos still in use today. This hectic urban phase included illustrations, influenced by his own memoirs of Greenland (N by E) and Tierra del Fuego (Voyaging) for a three-volume limited edition and Random House trade edition of Moby-Dick, which revived the fame and fortunes of that nearly forgotten classic. The 30s saw him much in demand by the publishing world: for Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the complete works of Shakespeare, the memoirs of Casanova, the Decameron, Candide, Faust, Leaves of Grass and many more. Kent also produced a spate of satirical drawings for the likes of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Weekly under the name “Hogarth Jr.” During this period The New Yorker was able to tease, “That day will mark a precedent/Which brings no news of Rockwell Kent.”

Diva Renée Fleming believes that the most important quality for a voice is that it be “distinctive” – think of Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Callas. Kent’s work was certainly of its time (and we all know the style of one’s own time is “transparent,” invisible to those who are within it), and yet is instantly recognizable as his, rippling with individual energy; his kinetic, confessional writing style prefigures New Journalism.

Meanwhile, there was politics.

Kent’s career bestrode the Age of the Manifesto. The mad intensity of the ‘20s, the “almost complete breakdown of our whole industrial machine” in the ‘30s, and the escalating slide toward war of the ‘40s forced artist to become activist. As he explained in This Is My Own (1940), the first of two formal autobiographies (though all his writings are autobiographical),

I believe in Peace and, as a clear and never-failing voice for Peace, in Art. … I am ashamed of it; ashamed, … of my childlike innocence, my adolescent credulousness, my fatuous belief. Roosevelt and the New Deal – can’t we recall what faith we had in them in ’33? … Just let us live in peace. … Deeply and from my heart, in utter reverence I pray: God damn them all.

Pacifism and noninterventionism were about to be criminalized when in 1939 Kent was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain his views and associations. He denied, honestly, being a Communist Party member, but would not disavow his red friends and associates, who were legion. For instance, he had designed posters for the IWW, contributed graphics to The Masses, slipped rebellious slogans into his WPA murals, and served as an official of the International Workers Order insurance society. In 1950 the government revoked his passport; and in 1953 the Orwellian-named “Permanent Investigations” Subcommittee tried to sweat him again on the subject. Senator McCarthy interrupted the artist’s defense by snapping, “I’ll not hear a lecture from you, Mr. Kent.” Kent retorted, “You certainly won’t – I get paid for my lectures!”

Emerging from this inquest, where he had refused to answer “Are you now or have you ever been?,” Kent was accosted by reporters who asked the same question. This time he chortled scornfully, “No I am not and have never been … and practically everybody knows that!” It was not until 1958 that the Supreme Court in a landmark decision ruled his passport be restored immediately.

After all the bad PR, however, Kent underwent what critic Edward Hoagland calls “steep neglect of his work.” Galleries and shows were closed to him, collectors no longer collected him. In 1960 he defiantly donated eighty paintings and ten times as many drawings and prints to the Soviet Union, where they repose to this day, in the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, among others. In 1967 the Soviets awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize, most of which he gave away to charities … in North Vietnam.

Rockwell Kent was a gadfly, and a bit of a crank, who “just wanted to be left alone”: an egotistical socialist, cosmopolitan isolationist, patriotic globalist, home-loving adventurer, Christian nature-worshipper, avant-garde antimodernist, philandering family man, “deeply misanthropic” humanitarian (per Hoagland), democratic individualist, ecstatic engineer, bon vivant laborer – in many ways the painterly equivalent of resistance poet Robinson Jeffers.

Between us moderns and men like Kent and Jeffers there is not just a cultural but an anthropological difference. The right-wing individualist of today is the social liberal of yesterday. But the likenesses between Kent and William Blake, born 125 years earlier, are so great that the former seems almost the latter’s reincarnation. Both were mystics, worshippers of Liberty, yearners after the natural and elemental Life, artists as well as philosophers, believers in Free Love, calligraphers as well as painters, illustrators of their own writings, accused of sedition, and hauled before tribunals. In addition Kent learned from Blake how to draw the “Human Form Divine.” Unlike Blake and most other Symbolists, however, Kent was adept at rendering individuals body and soul. His portraits of Greenlanders in Salamina (1935) are alive. Unlike fellow landscape artists Maynard Dixon and the Group of Seven, he caught not only that last thin yellow ray of Arctic sun on the shoulder of the mountain but well-wrought parties of humans and their gear. Kent’s vision of man in nature was an unusually balanced one, reflecting his own Renaissance balance of gifts.

Quoth a Renaissance proverb: “A cat may look at a king.” It is understood that feline nature disdains servility. British law goes so far as to define cats as “free spirits,” “wanderers” – unlike dogs, which are property that can stray and even trespass. Cats “are allowed to roam outside” and “are not considered domesticated animals” under American law as well. A Kent too may look at a king. His story, like the story of resisters such as Edward Snowden today, demonstrates the necessity for multiple power centers, especially as the world continues to massify into a smothering, elite-ridden globaloma. It is not necessary that the center chosen for refuge be 100% righteous – merely that it exist. The enemy of your enemy may not be your friend, but at least he differs from your enemy.

Rockwell Kent, the erstwhile communist, reposes beneath a stone that reads “This Is My Own” (from Scott’s “Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said,/’This is my own, my native land?’”). He died in 1971 on his Plattsburgh farm, called Asgaard after Nordic myth, just up the river from his New York birthplace, near the Vermont and Canadian borders.

A friend of Blake wrote after his death, “His aim single, his path straightforward, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. He was a man without a mask.” Rockwell Kent, too, lived a free man - one of the last of the Americans.

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