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Rockwell Kent

by Frederick Lewis, Director
Dundee Road Productions, Athens, GA, 2005
DVD. 170 mins. Sales $39.95
Distributor’s website: http://www.amazon.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa


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. 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.

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.

This is a three-hour production (longer than a feature film), but I found that far from a seemingly endless ordeal, it was always engaging and a continual pleasure to watch. It is a “two reeler,” as it would have been called a century earlier, and comes packaged in two equal sessions, which can conveniently be watched on subsequent nights. On the cover of the DVD package, there is a reviewer’s blurb that states that this is “the best film on an American artist that I have ever seen.” I hesitate to go that far, but I agree that it is a contender.

As further incentive, it has a selection of “extras” or “add-ons,” some of which are quaint (even bizarre) but of undoubted historical worth. Of these extra features, the one that I enjoyed the most was a brief account of the work that was done on the film by several students at Ohio University in Athens, where filmmaker Frederick Lewis (who researched and wrote the script) is on the faculty of the School of Media Arts and Studies. When making a film, few things are more important than the skillful integration of the narration, visual components and soundtrack, and, in this case, the role that Lewis’ students played was critical to the end result.

One other colorful note about this: Kent was very much aware of the work of illustrator Norman Rockwell, and Rockwell was aware of his. It was common for their admiring public to mistake one name for the other, so often that they both gave up correcting misdirected praise. But later, in the years following the McCarthy hearings, Kent was annoyed to find that he was also being confused with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party.

Last Updated 1 January 2013

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