Like many people of my generation in this country, I grew up reading books that were illustrated by the American artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971). His bold, black-and-white graphic style made an emphatic impression on young readers, and his illustrated editions of Shakespeare and other literary classics-his Moby-Dick was a great favorite of mine-were often awarded as school prizes. To the public of that period, Kent was thus mainly known as an illustrator. It wasn’t until we were adults that some of us discovered that Kent was also a highly regarded painter and fairly prolific writer as well.
Later on we discovered still another claim to fame-or rather, notoriety: Kent was not only an avowed Communist but an outspoken champion of the Soviet Union at a time when the Cold War dominated the international political scene. As a consequence of his openly declared support of Stalin, Kent was subpoenaed in 1953 to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and on that occasion he opted to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
This inevitably had a significantly adverse effect on his career in the United States, and the issue was further exacerbated when he decided to exhibit his work in Leningrad and Moscow. The final break came in 1960, when Kent donated some 80 paintings and around 800 works on paper to the Soviet Union, falsely claiming that he had offered this huge donation to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., and that his gift had been turned down for political reasons. Even earlier, Kent had also falsely claimed that the Farnsworth had offered him an exhibition and then reneged-because of his politics. (Kent had long been a resident of Monhegan Island in Maine, and much of his art was devoted to Maine subjects.)
All of this history-both of Kent’s career as an artist and his parallel vocation as a dedicated Stalinist-is the subject of Seeing Red: Rockwell Kent and the Farnsworth Art Museum , an exhibition organized by the Farnsworth. While there are some representative examples of Kent’s paintings, drawings, prints and illustrated books in the exhibition, the primary focus is not on the artist’s work. Because Kent had defamed the museum with a blatant political slander, the Farnsworth has mounted this show to settherecordstraight. Hencetheplethoraof letters, press clippings and other documentation displayed to support the museum’s case.
In my view-admittedly that of a staunch anti-Communist-the Farns-worth has amply succeeded in making its case. Kent clearly set out to defame not only the Farnsworth Museum but also his own country, which was standard Stalinist practice. And he was generously rewarded for this political perfidy when the Kremlin bestowed on him one of the Soviet Union’s highest honors, the Lenin Peace Prize. He promptly donated his prize money to the Communist regime in North Vietnam.
As it happens, I was witness to the odious “peace prize” ceremony in the Kremlin: Kent abased himself with extravagant praise for the Soviet Union’s so-called peace initiatives while bitterly denouncing the United States for “committing genocide” in Southeast Asia. The year was 1967-the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution-and to mark the occasion, the American media dispatched a regiment of journalists, myself among them, to report on every aspect of the Soviet Union’s half-century of achievement. I was then the art critic for The New York Times , and it was my unhappy assignment to write about the fate of Soviet art, which was still strictly controlled to conform to the tenets of Socialist Realist political kitsch.
Even worse than the official Soviet art, however, was the dismal atmosphere of daily life, not to mention the bad food and the oppressive bureaucracy, which monitored the movements of every foreign visitor. Soviet officialdom then had access to special food shops and luxury items that were denied to ordinary citizens. Foreign newspapers and magazines were prohibited.
The visit was not without elements of comedy. Look magazine, then one of the most popular weeklies in America, had sent the illustrator Norman Rockwell to produce scenes of Soviet life for its issue on the Soviet Union’s anniversary. Rockwell was what in those days was called a rock-ribbed Republican in politics, and there was hardly a person in the world he loathed more than Rockwell Kent. Yet whenever he was introduced to some Soviet bureaucrat in Moscow, he was greeted with an effusive “Welcome to the Soviet fatherland, Mr. Norman Rockwell Kent!” Needless to say, this infuriated Rockwell, but in his illustrations for Look he nonetheless made Soviet life look as quaint and amusing as his famously sentimental covers for the old Saturday Evening Post . How Rockwell Kent felt about this farce has not been recorded.
About the issues that are addressed in the Seeing Red show, I think that Victoria Woodhull, the associate director of the Farnsworth, is essentially correct in both of the following excerpts from her essay in the exhibition brochure:
“To this day, it is widely accepted by scholars and the general public that the Farnsworth Museum turned down a large collection of Kent’s works because he had been called to testify before the McCarthy hearings in 1953 ….
“But, it is more likely that the gift of the collection to the Soviet Union is one that simply fell in line with the natural course of Kent’s life. At one of the most fearful and chaotic times in America’s history, Kent was both a victim of his time and an instigator of his destiny.”
Ms. Woodhull also notes how this episode was covered in the American press: “On November 17, 1960, the Boston Herald reported both the museum’s and Kent’s accounts of the gift [to the Soviet Union], while The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune chose to print Kent’s recollection alone, forever immortalizing the story in the public memory.”
Seeing Red: Rockwell Kent and the Farnsworth Art Museum remains on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., through Nov. 28.