Rockwell Kent was both a perfect creature of his time and a complete original. His brawny, broad-shouldered, but sleekly elegant Art Deco illustrations are firmly planted in early 20th America, when books and print served as potent messengers of cultural meaning, capable of the sharp sting of reproach as well as the fine pleasure of a literate, well-composed page. He is one of a number of American artists, including some of those I wrote about two posts ago, who give us a clear picture of a very particular time.
But on the other hand, there is only one Rockwell Kent, the fearless adventurer who stalked the wild places of the earth in sturdy boots, a pen and notebook ever at hand. Perhaps best known for his stellar illustrations for the celebrated Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick (1930)
illustration from Moby Dick 1930
Voyaging - Self Portrait
Kent needed no paltry second-hand references for his churning waves, high seas, and angry nature - he'd been there. The list is long and impressive - Greenland (where he was shipwrecked and lived for some time) Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland, an island off the Maine coast - and the wilds of the Adirondack Mountains, his stateside home for many years.
Vanity Fair illustration by "Hogarth Jr."
Kent walked another tightrope of sorts in his career and life, moving from 'society illustrations' for Vanity Fair (he signed them Hogarth Jr., a nod to William Hogarth, the sly 18th c. English artist and satirist) and sleek ads for a luxury boat manufacturer, to high-toned book commissions, and finally to crisply critical social commentary that aligned with his deeply-held belief in the rights of the common man.
'Workers of the World, Unite' and 'Wake Up America,' both in a show at the Philadelphia Museum, are good examples of how he could temper his message from urgent to subtle. 'Workers of the World, Unite,' seen here on the cover of a 'red' journal, is a powerful call to action while 'Wake Up America' has more than a little Norman Rockwell folksiness - it takes a few moments to register the message of numbing destructive apathy - time is running out and the flag is being bent and broken overhead.
Workers of the World, Unite
Wake Up, America
N by E - Rockwell Kent 1930
Kent was a gifted writer too, one who put his experiences and his philosophies into words as well as pictures. Like his art, his books are a slightly dated but earnest, authentic record of a fascinating period of time from a singular perspective. A passage from his book Voyaging spells out his identity: "it the reality of mountains and plains, the sea and the unfathomable heavens, unchangingly forever dominating man, cradling him in that remote hour of his awakening into consciousness, forever smiling, brooding, thundering upon him, that have imposed their nature upon man and made him what he is."
Home Port 1931
Along with many other creative intellectuals, Kent put time into the Communist Party in the hopes that it would provide a better answer; inevitably his involvement led to clashes with Joe McCarthy and his committee. It also, however, led to remarkable honors and actions. Kent, the first American artist to show his work in the U.S.S.R., was awarded a Lenin Peace Prize; he donated the money to help women and children in both Vietnams during the Vietnam War years.
Man at the Mast 1929
Kent's brand of bold outspoken courage in art and life, put to the service of big ideas and a greater good, is a bit thin on the ground these days - it would be nice to see more of it right now in our moment. Rockwell Kent would have no trouble recognizing that help is needed for the poor, the needy and the hardworking common 'man.'
The Philadelphia Museum is currently showing Rockwell Kent - Voyager: An Artist’s Journey in Prints, Drawings, and Illustrated Books. Through July 29, 2012. The show is organized by Kent's longtime friend Carl Zigrosser, the founding curator of the museum's department of prints and drawings. The show includes a range of work, including woodcuts, pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches, lithography (a self-portrait with the stone that made the print is fascinating) and watercolors.http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/760.html
Maurice Sendak 1928-2012
Childhood was very good to Maurice Sendak - not his own so much, but the childhood he gave to others. His books opened up new worlds for children. Though it was sad to lose him last month, he left a great deal - great in all senses - not a bad way to go at 83. Many of the children that were his first audience are now grey-haired grandparents, but I’ll bet a little boy named Max, dressed in a wolf suit, still lives in their hearts.
From Where the Wild Things Are 1963
Where the Wild Things Are came out in 1963, the same year Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique were published. As much as the others Where the Wild Things Are caused an uproar – it was a time when the future was challenging an outmoded mindset with a dose of hard reality. Librarians and teachers vilified Sendak’s book, calling it dark and too frightening for children, but the kids knew better, recognizing in the simple story of a child struggling to control his own wild impulses the basic truth that childhood is, in fact, darker and more frightening than adults own up to once they’re past it.
From The Juniper Tree 1974
Sendak had a gift for taking childhood seriously - I’d call it his greatest strength. Too many well-intentioned kid’s book authors think children and their state of being are ‘cute.’ Sendak never made that mistake. His own well-documented childhood in a family of Holocaust survivors (along with ever-present specters of his family’s victims) gave him a front row seat on dark and frightening, but combined with the ebullient humor and spirit ever present in his work, his was a powerful, compelling vision.
From the Juniper Tree 1974
What isn’t always mentioned with Maurice Sendak is how steeped he was in the traditions of children’s illustrations. He was an original with a beautifully unique voice, but like all great artists, he had a profound knowledge of and respect for his craft and his predecessors. In The Juniper Tree, a collection of Grimm’s Tales (1974), Sendak went directly to the source with a meticulous technique based on European, especially German, engraving techniques. The Juniper Tree is a tour de force of children’s illustration, very different from the bolder linear drawings in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but with Sendak’s signature faces, expressions, and gestures - deeply thought, a bit troubling, and humorous, all at the same moment.
John Tenniel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 1865
The German connection in Sendak’s work has been clearly noted, but there is plenty more from the broad field of fine children’s illustration. Beatrix Potter’s anthropomorphic animals, full of charm but no squishy sentimentality, John Tenniel’s seriously, delightfully kooky world in Alice in Wonderland, Walter Crane’s gorgeous command of line and composition, Edward Lear’s goofy playful illustrated verses – and plenty more, including Fritz Eichenberg, an older contemporary.
Edward Lear 1804
Walter Crane 1883
Beatrix Potter - diary page 1880's
Fritz Eichenberg Jane Eyre 1943
As a young illustrator Sendak must have been well aware of Eichenberg, who fled Germany ahead of the Nazi’s in the 30’s and built a significant career as a teacher and illustrator in New York. Eichenberg’s dark brooding wood engravings for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are among my most enduring childhood memories - when I encountered the editions as an adult I felt the shock of recognition of a long-lost friend. Sendak and Eichenberg were, in some senses, kindred souls, each a master with an affinity for craft and fine careful work in illustration, divided and united by a common history.
The Prodigal Son 1967
Child's Christmas in Wales 1969
Maurice Sendak In the Night Kitchen 1970
Sendak’s path led him to lighter ground where his sense of play had full rein, not only in books but in theatre and opera design. Spend some time with Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen and you’ll see that Sendak was always a set designer – his books unfold with all the drama of a well-made play. He never shortchanged children - he gave them the best, and his best was magnificent. The work of a lifetime, and lifetimes before him, is in every line he drew.An exhibit of Sendak's work has just opened at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia.
Maurice Sendak: A Legacy continues through May 26, 2013https://www.rosenbach.org/learn/exhibitions/maurice-sendak-legacy
George Bellows: Stag at Sharkey's 1909
Isn't it funny how so many art movements are named by snarky insults? The 'Impressionists', The 'Fauves', even the Gothic style - these were not terms of endearment but put-downs from critics who clearly thought they knew what was 'art' and what was not. 'The Ashcan School' is another example, this time from early 20th century America.
Artists and Friends in John Sloan's NY studio 1898
In the context of a time when so much artistic fur was flying in Europe (Cubism, Surrealism, Picasso, Matisse, etc.) the work of the Ashcan School can seem a bit tame and stodgy, but these artists, like their European contemporaries, were revolutionaries, rebelling against conservative American tastes - which were at least, if not more, conservative than traditional tastes in Europe.
Chicago Art Institute Students: Flyer 1913
In 1913 the famous Armory Show was mounted in New York, bringing the first taste of avant-garde art to the U.S. The Armory Show, an earthquake that shook expectations and assumptions to their foundations, was recognized as a colossal event but one that was shocking, even dangerous. The New York Tribune called it “A Remarkable Affair Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.” It is said that notices were posted warning pregnant women away for fear they would miscarry, and when the show moved to Chicago, Matisse was given a mock trial on charges of 'artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line,' found guilty, and sentenced to die.
George Luks: Nighttime Buying and Selling on Allen Street 1905
Organized by American painters eager to bring the excitement of Modern Art closer to home, the Armory show included a healthy number of forward-looking Americans, foremost among them the artists who would come to be known as The Ashcan School. A first American volley against the strict traditions of the National Academy was the 1908 show in New York by The Eight, a group of painters circled around the charismatic teacher/painter Robert Henri. It was their only group showing - the circle then expanded, with one result being the group that came to be known as The Ashcan School.
George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers 1913
As you might guess by the name, these painters, including Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn, concerned themselves not with idealized beauty, but with a realistic perspective on the gritty life of New York's poorer neighborhoods and rich colorful streets.
John Sloan: McSorley's Bar 1912
Many of them had backgrounds as newspaper illustrators so there is an element of reportage in the work of the Ashcan School, along with an acceptance, even celebration of human nature in its most banal and ordinary forms. There's more than a bit of Bruegel in the Ashcan School, coupled with the lush expressive brushwork of Frans Hals and Velasquez - no accident. These painters were sophisticated and knowledgeable and most had spent time traveling and studying in Europe. Notable works include Bellow's mighty Stag at Sharkey's (1909) his marvelously detailed Cliff Dwellers (1913), George Luks's Nighttime Buying and Selling on Allen Street (1905), George Bellow's Washington Square South (1910) and John Sloan's McSorley's Bar (1912.)
William Glackens: Washington Square South 1910
John Sloan: Sunday, Women drying their Hair 1912
Robert Henri: Dutch Girl in White 1907
Robert Henri, for being such an inspiration to these painters of lively genre scenes, is better known for portraits - he's a marvelous painter whose brushwork and handling of paint is simply delicious. He did quite a few portraits of children, especially on his travels. This lovely example is from a stay in Holland in 1907. The National Gallery in Washington has just opened a show of the work of George Bellows - I hear it's wonderful and can't wait to see it! http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/bellowsinfo.shtm
The newly re-opened Barnes Collection in Philadelphia includes many works of William Glackens and examples from some of the other Ashcan painters.
Hip hip and cheerio to the Queen and all that - you may think that England is the last bastion of conservative tradition, but not when it comes to the Arts. The US caved long ago to conservative interests in terms of major public funding and awards, but the Turner Prize, awarded each year to a British artist under 50, reminds us that energy, spirit and imagination should be celebrated, even if you don't like it or agree with it. In 2003 the Turner Prize was awarded to Grayson Perry, described by Wikipedia as 'an English artist, known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross-dressing.'
I recently heard Grayson Perry on a BBC podcast about traditions and was so struck by his interesting remarks that I had to find out more about him - and discovered a whole new world. I can't believe I've missed him until now - he's no shrinking violet. A new member of the Royal Academy, he currently has a big show at the British Museum called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Part of his contribution to the Traditions discussion was a comment about liking to work with mediums that require skill and relate to age-old processes, not only ceramics but lately also tapestry.
Quotations from the Internet 2005
In his ceramics he sticks with traditional forms such as standing vases reminiscent of Greek amphora; he claims to like lulling people into a feeling of security with forms they think they recognize and with expectations of reassuring patterns - flowers or a simple landscape - and then hitting them over the head with his intricately drawn decorations full of wit, puns, historical references and social comment.
He says he has little use for the post-Duchamp conceptual idea of art - it's art if I say it's art - so goes out of his way to make his life as well as his art an exercise in complicated, elaborate craftsmanship. And he's having a great deal of fun doing it - he seems a bit like Cindy Sherman with a sense of humor. And there's his 50-year old teddy bear, Alan Measles, who is something of a god in his world.
Grumpy Old God 2007
Map of Truths and Belief 2011 (tapestry)
Punters in the Snow 1999
I've always on the lookout for great use of drawing and here's a wonderful example of a good hand, plus mind and heart working together to create a sum much greater than the parts. An instant favorite for me is his Punters in the Snow - a witty homage to Bruegel's elegiac 16th century painting Hunters in the Snow. Grayson Perry, his work and life, brought to mind Shakespeare's line from The Tempest: O brave new world That has such people in't!