DescriptionROCKWELL KENT (American, 1882-1971)
Polar Expedition, 1944
Oil on canvas
34 x 44 inches (86.4 x 111.8 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Rockwell Kent 1944
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF JUDSON C. AND NANCY SUE BALL
Encyclopedia Britannica Collection of Contemporary American Art;
Springville Museum of Art, Springville, Utah;
[With]Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, Chicago, Illinois, 1998.
Associated American Artists, New York, n.d;
Springville Museum of Art, Springville, Utah, Annual Spring Salon, first prize, 1947.
Of all of the faraway, unspoiled places that Rockwell Kent visited, it was Greenland that sparked his most innovative and mature body of work, conceptually as well as formally. He first traveled there in 1929 and was so taken with the landscape and the people, that he returned two other times, between 1931-32 and 1934-35. Once back in his Adirondacks studio, he continued to paint Greenland compositions like Polar Expedition well into the 1940s. The awesome grandeur of the land impacted Kent as never before: at sites like Sermilik Fjord and Igdlorssuit Sound, blindingly blue skies crowned towering glaciers and mountains rising above vast icescapes.
Kent also responded instantly to the Greenlanders and their no-nonsense lifestyle. In his memoir Salamina, named after the Greenland woman with whom had an affair, Kent described the natives as hard-working, happy fishermen and seal hunters whose strenuous outdoor activities in freezing conditions bred character. Indeed, for Kent, the Greenlanders were the ideal embodiment of Emerson's and Thoreau's Transcendentalist ethic -- of man's deriving bodily and soulful sustenance from nature. His Eskimo friends taught him how to operate a dog-pulled sled so that he could take painting trips into the wild. Kent's recounting of one such journey recalls the action in Polar Expedition:
"[We]'re shod in sealskin, knee-high kamiks with their inner dog-fur socks; [we] have on windproof sealskin trousers . . . fairly wind-resistant, cotton anorak[s] with hood[s] . . . and good warm mittens. . . . We're off! And whether we drive a mile or two along the shore of our island, or cross the ten-mile-wide fjord or sound and, pushing on, explore the narrow mountain-walled fjords that lead to glaciers and the inland ice, is up to us. The dogs, well fed, well trained, and, let us hope, well driven, are game for anything. And on the wind-packed snow they only break their trot to gallop. But we have come to paint; and arriving at a spot where, let us say, a turquoise and pale emerald iceberg stands silhouetted against the rich-hued, deep-toned land, I halt the dogs, move my sledge-easel with its mounted canvas into position, squeeze out my colors, and am ready to begin" (R. Kent, It's Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent, in F. Johnson, Rockwell Kent: An Anthology of His Works, New York, 1982, p. 181).
Polar Expedition unifies man within nature at the same time that it abstracts objects, turning them into symbols. Just as his modernist colleagues were examining the power of elemental landscape forms -- Georgia O'Keeffe, the New Mexico desert, and Marsden Hartley, the Bavarian Alps -- so, too, did Kent associate Greenland's soaring, pyramidal mountains and glaciers with human striving and yearning. Here, he suggests this man-mountain connection by formally echoing the brown jagged mountain range in the irregular, brown-toned line of men with their husky-drawn sleds. Like others of his Greenland compositions, Polar Expedition organizes nature into flattened, horizontal bands of strong, pure colors -- foreground white ice, mid-ground brown mountain range, and background blue sky -- connoting both the expansiveness and theatricality of the landscape. Kent even described his simplified geometric topographies as stages upon which human dramas unfolded:
"Standing on the sloping foreland of Igdlorssuit, one looks out as though upon the stage of a great theater. Of that stage, the level plain of the sea is the floor, the great circle of the heavens is the proscenium arch, the two headlands are the wings. Sea, mountains, ice, are its one set; sun, moon, and stars the light. And [there is] drama endlessly deploying there"(R. Kent, Salamina, New York, 1935, p. 107).
The art historian Richard V. West explains additional history behind this painting: "Polar Expedition was painted in 1944 as the result of a commission from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and was used to illustrate an article in the 1945 edition of Britannica Junior, a 12-volume reference set aimed at younger readers. The painting then entered the Encyclopedia Britannica Collection of Contemporary American Painting and was included in several exhibitions of the collection. Kent subsequently traded another painting for Polar Expedition, but the Encyclopedia retained reproduction rights, and images of it continued to be used in their publications. . . . About the painting, Kent wrote, 'On fair days and under good conditions a trip of fifty to seventy-five miles, with dogs drawing a laden sledge, is easily accomplished. North Greenland in spring, the country and its life, are an experience in happiness never to be forgotten.'"
Polar Expedition will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Richard V. West. This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Scott R. Ferris.
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