“I don’t want petty self-expression…I want the rhythm of eternity,” Rockwell Kent once said of his life. And so he lived.
Kent spoke in a deeply multidimensional way. Not only famous as an artist, Kent was an explorer, survivalist, architect, leader and entrepreneur. When he died, The New York Times wrote: “He is such a multifaceted person that he is multifaceted.”
Adventure and art
Between 1920 and 1930, Kent wrote three adventure books: N by E, Wild regionand Traveling South from the Strait of Magellan. His artistic spirit portrays his travels in unusual and creative ways. More than an adventure, they are also portraits of the psyche, and of humanity.
Kent’s travels shaped his art and vice versa. Authentic first-hand experiences empowered new creative avenues. Many of his paintings and drawings have become icons that continue to inspire artists and explorers. I believe their power lies in the feeling and presence of the Arctic. Kent captures the mood of the landscape, lit by polar light, with extraordinary fidelity. Artists such as Fyodor Konyukhov continued Kent’s style. “Rockwell Kent inspired my life,” Konyukhov told me.
Kent has broadened his interest from purely artistic to exploration, survivalism and sailing. This call to adventure in turn initiates his quest for virility. In his memoirs he wrote of the strong arms and physical presence of fishermen he saw while painting on the shore of Dublin Pond. He wrote that he would like to earn some of this physical grounding himself.
So his journey began. It was built on homemade houses, dance floors and boats. He sailed as far north as Alaska and Greenland, and as far south as the Strait of Magellan. On almost every trip he built a new house.
His “cursed libido”
Greenlandic society was a utopian model of its socialist ideals. This corresponded to his political convictions, his artistic spirit and what he called his “cursed libido”. Raised in a traditional society, he reflected on his experience of indigenous openness and physical intimacy: “What we stigmatize as fornication and adultery is for them a natural pastime, spiced with a slight wickedness”.
He called Greenlanders “the friendliest, most loving, nicest, dirtiest, dirtiest people in the world”, and he enjoyed living as a Greenlander as he defined it. Kent doesn’t elaborate, but I saw more tolerance for LGBT minorities in Greenland 13 years ago than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Tolerance and openness in these small towns seem deeply rooted.
According to her diary, Kent’s promiscuity in Greenland was surpassed only by German actress Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s arrival in Greenland coincided with Kent’s fiftieth birthday celebration, for which he built a dance floor. According to Kent, Riefenstahl had so many visitors in his tent that the Greenlanders called him “the mattress”.
work and play
During Kent’s three visits between 1929 and 1935, a splendid collection of art emerged. One of the most notable titles was Salamiswhich depicts his time with a woman of that name, as well as other local women.
Although many polar explorers live with Inuit women, he is the only one who dares to go into detail. For an American audience, the book was odd, but the writing never violated or exceeded the bounds of Greenlanders’ sense of decency. It was the only behavioral etiquette Kent cared to obey.
In Greenland, he worked about 14 hours a day. He built houses, created works of art, bred dogs, hunted and contributed to the life of the small settlement of Igdlorssuit. The Greenlanders loved him. When he left, they gathered on the shore and sang a farewell hymn. He replied: “Farewell Igdlorssuit, as to life.”
Persecution in the United States
As an entrepreneur back in New York State, Kent used Nordic names for his businesses. So he named his dairy farm Aasgard, the home of the Norse gods. He spent most of his time there, running the farm and creating artwork. He held meetings for the intellectual elite in the evenings but rose early each morning to start work at 6 a.m.
Politics and socialism remained important to Kent, and he found ways to incorporate his beliefs into his work. Canadian-Icelandic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson noticed that Kent had left a cryptic message in Inuktitut on a mural commissioned by the United States government. He called on Puerto Ricans to change leaders and break free.
For this, and for many other socialist actions and affiliations, he was often persecuted by the US government. He deemed his books communist and subversive. If found, they burned his books. This persecution dented her popularity and led to financial problems.
an imitator of himself
Despite these hardships, he never stopped creating. Towards the end of his life, he tried to start over under another name, only to be branded a Rockwell Kent impersonator. “To be an imitator, even of yourself, is despicable,” he replied.
His artistic career culminated with a major exhibition in Moscow. It was the first solo exhibition by an American artist in the Soviet Union and Kent’s last exhibition. This is where his work remains. He left a legacy of hundreds of works, from drawings and paintings to murals and sculptures. However, he is best known for his early illustrations of Moby Dick.
I see a lot of William Blake in Kent’s art. The same heavily charged body shapes, with an aura of mysticism, though Kent has supplemented it with elements of socialist realism on numerous occasions. Both Blake and Kent have sought to reclaim their physique, and I think that quest has defined them as much as their art.
Before his death, Kent said, “I got everything I could get out of life. All that I want? No…I want it all. Is not it ?