Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern

Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2005

A Major Exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art

The most comprehensive exhibition of its kind, Rockwell Kent: The Mythic and the Modern will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, through October 16, 2005. The exhibition brings together more than 150 of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints and explores Kent’s vibrant career, his role in developing a modern American art, and his significance in our cultural heritage. The show, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Kent’s arrival in Maine in June 1905, includes major loans from leading American and Russian institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of Art, The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and The State Hermitage Museum, among others.

One of the great painters of his day, Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) made innovations that reverberated through American culture in the first half of the 20th century. He rose to prominence between the world wars as a painter of extraordinary power whose adventurous life captured the American imagination. Personifying the spirit of a restless era, Kent frequently journeyed to remote corners of the Western Hemisphere including Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland to paint land and seascapes. Kent first visited the island of Monhegan, off the coast of Maine, in 1905. He exhibited his first group of paintings from Maine in 1907 to critical acclaim in New York City. Kent became one of the most watched painters of his day as his contemporaries Edward Hopper and George Bellows arrived on Monhegan to paint their visions of that distinctive landscape.

The exhibition reunites a remarkable group of Kent’s Newfoundland paintings and drawings borrowed from American and Russian public collections, many not seen for generations. Kent moved to Newfoundland in 1914 with his wife and children, and over the course of a year there, he developed a new body of work in response to the challenges presented by the Armory Show of 1913, a showcase for new painting from Europe. Kent forged a new American Symbolist aesthetic that evolved into his bold signature style.

Kent also spent time in Greenland. During his two sojourns there, during the winters of 1931-32 and 1934-35, Kent painted icescapes of extraordinary power – towering glaciers and skies glowing with the dazzling clarity of Arctic light. These visionary, utopian paintings included passages of spare, almost abstract beauty.

Mythic American characters such as Captain Ahab and Paul Bunyan were also the subjects of Kent’s work, and a distinguished group of Kent’s drawings for Moby Dick and Paul Bunyan are brought together in this exhibition for the first time. These pen, brush, and ink drawings are examples of his mature style that art historian Paul Cummings considered highly influential. In the broader cultural realm of art and commerce, Kent is remembered for the innovations he brought to institutional advertising. He invented a modern American vernacular for the consumer that integrated mythic figures and neoclassical motifs. Kent also promoted national cohesiveness during the Second World War through his portrayals of the merchant mariner for American Export Lines. A selection of pen and ink drawings from the American Export Lines series will be included together with drawings of the American dream for Rahr Malting Company that were published in 1947.

Kent’s genius as a renderer with pen and ink played a central role in gaining him recognition as a spirited modern. A lively group of his inventive jazz-age drawings will be assembled, many of which were published in the pages of Vanity Fair. Frank Crowninshield, who edited Vanity Fair, considered Kent “the most original, vigorous and promising” of his artists. Carl Zigrosser, who became curator of prints and drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, envisioned Kent as a great satirist – a Daumier for modern America. Kent’s witty, curvilinear drawings addressed issues of metropolitan and suburban life, exposing the foibles, and flouting the pretensions of upper-class sophisticates. Editors of Vanity Fair, Puck, Life, and the New York Tribune paired Kent’s drawings with the urbane columns of George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Chappell. Also exhibited will be a dazzling group of Kent’s richly colored reverse paintings on glass from 1918, which represent Kent’s contribution to a simplified, modern style.

The exhibition is guest curated by Jake Milgram Wien, an independent curator and scholar of American cultural history. He curated Rockwell Kent in Greenland for the Silkeborg Kunstnerhus in Denmark and has published widely on Kent for scholarly books and journals.

Jessica Nicoll, Chief Curator and Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art, is coordinating curator for the exhibition. A 200-page exhibition catalogue featuring 100 color illustrations will provide fresh scholarship and essays by Wien with a foreword by Richard V. West, director emeritus at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

Museum Information

The Portland Museum of Art is located at Seven Congress Square in downtown Portland. The Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday. Memorial Day through Columbus Day, the Museum is open on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Museum admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students with I.D., $2 for youth to 6 to 17, and children under 6 are free. The Museum is free on Friday evenings from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Museum Café and Store.

For more information, call 207-775-6148. Web site www.portlandmuseum.org.

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