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Rockwell Kent

Self-Portrait, 1934
Lithograph

“RIVES” 100% cotton rage paper produced in France
Signed in pencil, lower right
Edition of 150
Printer, George C. Miller
13 3/8” x 9 3/4”

Museum purchase, 1973


 

Essay by guest writer, Todd Giles, PhD
Associate Professor of English at MSU Texas

 

“In the new spirit that has come to art, no form of art can be more effective than printmaking. It is the art of multiple originals.” ~ Rockwell Kent, “Forward” to Printmakers, 1939.


There’s something downright disconcerting about Rockwell Kent’s Self-Portrait. Perhaps it’s the bold, bald nakedness of his stare. Or the bold, bald nakedness of his bean. Or perhaps it’s his proximity. There’s no avoiding that stare. He’s right up in your face. Even when you turn your back to him, you can feel his steely eyes piercing the back of your skull.

Rockwall Kent (1882-1971) was of the same generation as Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Reginald Marsh, all of whom are also held in the permanent collection of the WFMA. The same generation, indeed, but his work had little in common with his Social Realist peers, who depicted the commonplace they observed in New York City at the turn of the previous century. While they took a more detached observational approach to their downtrodden subjects, Kent’s eye turned to the symbolic, romantic, and allegorical. His artistic depictions of humanity are not gritty and socially-charged; they are idealistic and at times otherworldly. Kent was influenced by the older English styles of William Hogarth (1697-1764), William Blake (1757-1827), and the Pre-Raphaelites of the mid to late 1800s. Style aside, what all of the Social Realists agreed on is that printmaking, through its “economic necessity of making originals from one design . . . is a democratic art” (Kent, “Introduction” to Fifty Prints, 1927).

Along with being a muralist, printmaker, architect, author, and adventurer, Kent was also the most prominent wood-engraver of his generation, with hundreds of works appearing in books, periodicals, and advertisements. Indeed, his book illustrations are considered some of the most important artworks to accompany literary texts ever produced, as seen in his editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Covivi-Friede, 1930), the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Doubleday & Co., 1936), and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (Heritage Press, 1936). His 280 woodcut illustrations appearing in a 1930 three-volume set of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick published by The Lakeside Press are considered some of the best book illustrations ever made.  

It is through the lens of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) that I would like to consider Kent’s Self-Portrait, which, by the way, carries two alternate titles: Das Ding an Sich (“The thing in itself,” from Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena) and It’s Me O’ Lord (which would become the title of his autobiography in 1955). One of the things that is so intriguing about Self-Portrait is that it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his work. Kent composed the lithograph in 1934 at the age of fifty-two between extended stays in Greenland away from his estranged wife, Francis.

Walt Whitman, frontispiece, first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. Stipple engraving by Samuel Hollyer.

As a point of comparison between Kent and Whitman, I would like to use the frontispiece that opened Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass as a jumping off point to explore Kent’s self-portrait. Readers of the first edition of Leaves of Grass are welcomed by the then thirty-five year old poet as depicted in a steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer, which is based on a now-lost daguerreotype of the poet. The image of Whitman was every bit as bold and disconcerting in its day as Kent’s is to this viewer today. In it, we see a confident man in his prime flaunting the effete accruements of his poetic predecessors. (In an earlier photograph, Whitman posed wearing a coat, vest, cravat, and black felt bowler. He was even sporting a cane! Whitman as erudite Dandy would never appear again, thankfully). The frontispiece of Leaves presents an entirely different persona; here, he’s loosed the top button on his work shirt and stands with the suggestive swagger of one of the “roughs” who people his poem: butcher boys, cab drivers, farmers, escaped slaves, frontiersmen, and so forth. Hat rakishly askew, one hand pocketed, the other resting on his hip, Whitman directly confronts us, bold, proud and handsome. No parlor poet, he; this image boldly heralds the voice to come of our nation’s bardic prophet.

Whereas Whitman’s glance and attire send a very specific message, Kent’s side-eyed stare, on the other hand, at one and the same time conveys so much, yet so little. Is this the searching reflection of a middle-aged man in marital crisis? An unexpected passing glance caught in a shop window? A simple study in self-portraiture to pass the time? So much, yet so little. He’s not quite grinning and not quite frowning. Yet there is a sense of tension, like he wants to say something to us, or perhaps to himself. Or maybe there’s nothing there at all, and that’s why it is so disconcerting—no clothes to tell us about his profession, no furniture in the background highlighting his class, etc.

Perhaps the two alternate titles can shed some light on the matter. The quote from Kant—“The thing in itself”—relates to transcendental idealism, which argues that the observable world is a complex web of appearances whose existence only occurs through representation. That is, since we always experience objects within time and space, the sense we have of an object is not the actual object itself but the appearance of that object. Thus, “the thing in itself” is not inherently knowable since it is, by definition, that which is independent of its appearance. So, can we “know” Kent through his self-portrait if he himself, in the act of self-reflection, merely sees and depicts himself as he appears to himself? According to Kant, no, because the “thing itself” (Kent, in this case) is not truly knowable.   

The other alternate title, “It’s Me O Lord,” is an intriguing nod to the African American spiritual titled “It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord.” Here is a sample of the lyrics:

Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
. . .
Not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
. . .
Not my stranger or my neighbor, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Using this title, Kent depicts himself stripped of all socio-cultural apparatus standing bare before his maker, “Standin’ in the need of prayer.” Perhaps these alternate titles, which appear inscribed on a handful of the lithographs, help explain why Kent’s self-portrait is both devoid of any extraneous identifying subject matter beyond his own visage, not to mention why it is so hard to pin down.

Along with their defiant stares, Kent and Whitman share another connection—a distaste for abstraction. As Kent put it in 1919 during the height of Modernist artistic and literary experimentation: “The abstract is meaningless to me save as a fragment of the whole, which is life itself. It is the ultimate which concerns me, and all physical, all material things are but an expression of it” (“Alaska Drawings”). This, of course, speaks back to the fact, at least according to Kant/Kent, that everything is an expression or representation to the “thing itself,” or “the ultimate.” Whitman, towards the beginning of Song of Myself, addresses his aversion to abstraction thusly:

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.


The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

For Whitman, as was the case for the Social Realist artists of the teens and twenties, the crowed parlor shelves represent the sticky-sweetness of outmoded tradition—the poetic, philosophic, religious, and artistic Eurocentric past from which he sought to free himself and his art. He likes it and understands it well enough, but as an American poet searching for his and his land’s own voice, he needs to stand “undisguised and naked” with the material world of direct experience. He needs, as Kent says elsewhere, to embrace the “aesthetic experience of sensual contact” to perceive “the infinite” (“Of Esthetics,” 1928).

Likewise, as Kent says above about “the ultimate,” “all physical, all material things are but an expression of it.” Whitman puts it like this in “Song of Myself”: “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.” In other words, both Kent and Whitman saw “the ultimate” manifested in all aspects of existence, not just the higher realms of the soul or intellect. It is, Kent continues, “man’s immediate sensitivity to such contact” which is “the only guide and rule of beauty in the work he does.”

Perhaps it is precisely this “sensual contact” with a “man’s immediate sensitivity” that makes Kent’s Self-Portrait so arresting. The “immediate sensitivity” of “sensual contact” with others, after all, is often indescribable beyond the moment itself. It is “the thing in itself” in that when identities truly merge, the lens of descriptive perception fades away, even if just for a fleeting moment. One can almost imagine Kent reciting the opening of “Song of Myself,” which he read while illustrating Leave of Grass, as he captures our glance:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,            
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Poet and reader are one. One can also imagine Kent thinking “It’s Me O’ Lord” when reading this a few pages later:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one that one’s self is. . . .

One thing is certain, both Kent’s and Whitman’s portraits, in all of their silent directness, “sound [their] barbaric yawp[s] over the roofs of the world.”

 


Works Consulted

Johnson, Fridolf. Rockwell Kent: An Anthology of his Works. Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Jones, Dan Burne. The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné. U of Chicago P, 1974.

Watrous, James. A Century of American Printmaking, 1880-1980. U of Wisconsin P, 1984.


Self-Portrait from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

 

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