Great explorers: Rockwell Kent »Explorersweb
“I don’t want mean selfish expression… I want the beat of eternity,” Rockwell Kent once said of his life. And that’s how 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 so multiple that he is multiple.”
Adventure and art
Between 1920 and 1930 Kent wrote three adventure books: N by E, Wild region, and Traveling south from the Strait of Magellan. His artistic mindset 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 have 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 ambience of the landscape, illuminated by polar light, with extraordinary fidelity. Artists such as Fyodor Konyukhov continued the Kent style. “Rockwell Kent inspired my life,” Konyukhov told me.
Kent broadened his interest from purely artistic to exploration, survivalism and sailing. This call to adventure in turn begins his quest for virility. In his memoirs he wrote about the strong arms and physical presence of the fishermen he saw while painting on the shore of Dublin Pond. He wrote that he would like to gain some of that physical grounding himself.
So his journey began. It was built on houses, dance floors and homemade boats. He sailed as far north as Alaska and Greenland, and as far south as the Strait of Magellan. With almost every trip he has built a new house.
His “damn libido”
Greenlandic society was a utopian model of its socialist ideals. It matched his political convictions, his artistic spirit and what he called his “damn 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 a natural pastime for them, spiced with being slightly mean.
He called Greenlanders “the friendliest, loving, kind, dirty and dirty people in the world” and he loved living as a Greenlander as he defined it. Kent doesn’t give details, but I saw more tolerance towards LGBT minorities in Greenland 13 years ago than I saw elsewhere in the world. Tolerance and openness in these small towns seem to be well established.
According to her diary, Kent’s promiscuity in Greenland was only surpassed 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 Salamis, which depicts her time with a woman of that name, as well as other local women.
Although many polar explorers cohabited with Inuit women, he was the only one who dared to go into details. To an American audience the book was odd, but the writing never violated or overstepped the bounds of Greenlanders’ sense of decency. It was the only behavioral manners Kent cared to obey.
In Greenland he worked about 14 hours a day. He built houses, created art, raised dogs, hunted and contributed to the life of the small settlement of Igdlorssuit. The Greenlanders adored him. When he left, they gathered on the shore and sang a farewell hymn. He replied: “Goodbye 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 homeland of the Nordic gods. He spent most of his time there, running the farm and creating art. He organized meetings for the intellectual elite in the evenings, but got up early every 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 Kent left a cryptic message in Inuktitut on a mural commissioned by the United States government. He called on Puerto Ricans to change leaders and to free themselves.
For this, and for many other socialist actions and affiliations, he was often persecuted by the US government. He considered his books to be communist and subversive. If they were found, they burned his books. This persecution damaged its popularity and led to financial problems.
An imitator of himself
Despite these trials, he never stopped creating. Towards the end of his life he tried to start over under a different name, only to be called a Rockwell Kent impersonator. “To be an imitator, even of oneself, is despicable,” he replied.
His artistic career culminates with a major exhibition in Moscow. It was the first solo exhibition of an American artist in the Soviet Union and Kent’s last exhibition. This is where his work remains. He left behind 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 art. The same heavily loaded body forms, with an aura of mysticism, although Kent has supplemented it with elements of socialist realism on several occasions. Blake and Kent both sought to recapture their physicality, and I think that quest defined them as much as their art.
Before his death Kent said: “I had everything I could get out of life. All that I want? No… I want everything. Is not it ?