Rocked By Rockwell Kent

On a fine and sunny recent weekday afternoon, my wife and I headed north to what has become a suburban oddity, a genuinely good-looking and thriving town, one not marred by poor design and too many nail salons and tattoo parlors. I speak of Doylestown, in somewhat bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Our mission was to survey the three new exhibits at the James A. Michener Art Museum. The Michener is a splendid place. Modern and comfortable and spacious, it holds a diverse permanent collection anchored by works of 19th and 20th century Pennsylvania Impressionist landscape painters. Best of all, the Michener itself curates, or brings in from other museums, many special exhibitions each year. To me, a lot of them are fascinating and well-done. I’m not hard to please. Sometimes.

The three Michener shows on our agenda were: Rodin: The Human Experience — Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Collections; Kate Breakey: Small Deaths; and The Artist in the Garden. The Rodin and Breakey exhibits are a-ok. Auguste Rodin was famous in his lifetime, which ended about 100 years ago, and is no less so today, for good reason. His bronze statues and modelings are something else, often wildly undulating. The Michener is loaded with them right now. The Breakey display is of her large, in-your-face photographs of birds and flowers. The birds are newly-deceased (not by Breakey’s hand), and the flowers are decaying. Breakey, whom I’d never heard of before, hand colors the photographs, creating powerful images and giving new life to her subjects.

Rockwell Kent in his late 30s
Rockwell Kent in his late 30s

But forget Rodin and Breakey. The visit to the Michener would have been worth it to me for one art work alone, the first one that caught my eye as I made my way into the exhibition halls. It is “Winter Sunrise, Whiteface Mountain,” an oil painting from 1952 by a favorite of mine, the should-be-more-famous Rockwell Kent. He painted the picture near his home in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This oil, part of The Artist in the Garden exhibit, is broadly angled and limited in its mostly-muted color choices. Half-bare trees run along the bottom of the canvas, sun-brightened mountain ridges dominate the middle, and a murky green sky looks down at everything below. The painting somehow captures nature in an elemental way, which is what many great paintings do. I stared at the Kent for quite a while. The information card next to the painting said that Rockwell thought of nature as one unending garden, or something or other like that, and that’s why the curators included this most non-garden-like painting of trees and mountains in the “Garden” show. Well, they’ve probably stretched the point really wide, but that’s fine with me. Otherwise I’d never have seen this work.

Rockwell Kent died in 1971 at age 88. He had been a fine art painter, a book and magazine illustrator, a political thinker and activist, a wilderness adventurer, a chronicler of his life and travels, a farmer. Yup, an all-around cool guy. In 1927 he designed the logo used to this day by Random House book publishers. He gained a lot of fame for his pen and ink drawings of a 1930 edition of Moby Dick.

A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)
A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)

In a small way, he has been a part of my life for almost 20 years, dating back to when I first set foot in the Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod. Cape Cinema is an art movie house, whose vaulted ceilings and walls, most incredibly, are dynamically covered by a mural portraying the heavens and its mythological residents. Rockwell designed the mural in 1930. He climbed scaffolding and painted some of the square footage himself, but he was smart (or otherwise occupied) and left most of that heavy lifting to his collaborator Jo Mielziner. Their labors resulted in gorgeous swaths of yellows, oranges, purples and blues. I’ve been to Cape Cinema many times, because my wife and I are Cape Cod lovers and also cinephiles. With each visit there, my connection to Kent, as it is, seems to renew. Is there another movie theater like this in the world? I doubt it.

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