Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Film Review | Rockwell Kent

Dust jacket for Moby Dick with Melville's name omitted

Rockwell Kent
by Frederick Lewis, Director
Dundee Road Productions, Athens, GA, 2005
DVD. 170 mins. Sales $39.95
Distributor’s website:

In 1902, as a 20-year-old art student at the New York School of Art, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) studied with the painter Robert Henri. He was one of the top three students in the class, the others being George Bellows and Edward Hopper. Given their talents, at the time all three looked forward to promising futures.

Among Kent’s relatives was a wealthy aunt with an interest in art who had briefly been a student of the painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (the "father of camouflage"). By her suggestion, her nephew became Thayer’s apprentice in the summer of 1903, at the artist’s home and studio in Dublin, New Hampshire. Kent fit in remarkably well in the Thayer household, a blissfully fanciful setting which some (uncritical) visitors called “Thayeryland.” In subsequent years, he was a close friend of Thayer’s son Gerald while “Uncle Abbott,” to some extent, was a belated surrogate for his own father, who had died when Kent was an infant. In other than the summer months, Kent also learned architectural drafting in New York, which later, whenever needed, provided a reliable way to survive financially.

Kent's self-portrait photomontage of himself surrounded by Thayers*
A decade later, Kent was dismayed when his work was ignored for the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art—now famously known as the Armory Show—while among the featured works was a controversial painting by the French artist Marcel Duchamp, titled Nude Descending a Staircase. Four years later, when Duchamp submitted an entry to an exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists in New York, for which Kent was a board member, that organization rejected Duchamp’s strange submission because (conveniently) the entry form was not properly filled out. The “artwork” that Duchamp submitted was—of course—his first, most famous “readymade,” an unaltered porcelain urinal called Fountain, signed “R. Mutt 1917.”

It was around that time that Kent grew disillusioned with the New York “art world.” He turned essentially to design, even when he was “designing” with paint on canvas. Not surprisingly, today he is especially remembered as an extraordinary book illustrator (for me, his greatest achievement may be the Random House edition of Moby Dick, which, amazingly, was published initially with his name on the front cover, while omitting the name of the author, Herman Melville); an insatiable adventurer, having lived (and lusted, both within and outside of his marriage(s)) on Monhegan Island in Maine, and in Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland and Greenland; a phenomenally fluent writer; and a person who bravely protested when he was publicly targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the latter’s fabled manhunt for Communist sympathisers. Kent was openly supportive (too uncritically, in retrospect) of the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, but he was never a member of the American Communist Party. more>>>

* Kent is the large illuminated figure in the background. The five Thayers seated in front of him are (l to r) Abbott (Papa) H. Thayer, his second wife Emma (Addie) Beach Thayer, Gladys (Galla), Mary (Je-Je, Mandarin Chinese for "big sister"), and Gerald (Gra). Kent has given himself a halo, while Abbott and Gerald have elf ears. In subsequent years, Kent and Gerald Thayer were frequent friends, but he fell out of favor with Abbott because of his unfaithfulness to his first wife, Kathleen Whiting Kent, who was Abbott Thayer's niece. For more on this and other images and information, see the Rockwell Kent Collection at Plattsburgh State University.