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Slayton: Rockwell Kent

08/03/12 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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Autumn , 1923-27 - Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) - Oil on canvas, 34" x 44" - Private Collection

(Host) The artwork that the great American artist Rockwell Kent made while living in Vermont is on display through October 30 at the Bennington Museum. Veteran Vermont journalist and commentator Tom Slayton visited the show recently and was excited by what he discovered.

(Slayton) In the late 1920s and early 30s, Rockwell Kent was probably the most popular artist in America. His stark, mysterious drawings, paintings, and prints seemed to be just about everywhere.

VPR Commentator Tom Slayton
But Kent’s popularity faded with the change in artistic fashions that came to America in the 40s and 50s. Non-figurative modes of art like abstract expressionism became the latest new thing, and Kent’s mysticism and social activism were suddenly passé. It should be noted that the artist’s personality – his attraction to radical causes and to attractive women he wasn’t wed to – probably also played a part in his decline.

Nevertheless, Rockwell Kent’s art is as striking and powerful today as when he created it – and he created some of his most memorable pieces while he was living in Arlington, Vermont.

What makes the current show at the Bennington Museum especially interesting and important is that most biographies of Kent gloss over his Vermont years as a time of artistic quiescence and suggest that his adventure-loving personality didn’t take to the quiet rural landscape of Vermont.

But nothing could be further from the truth, as the Bennington Museum show makes clear.

In fact, the six years he lived in Arlington, from 1919 to 1925, appear to have been pivotal in his career. He was there when he first attracted national attention and wrote, after one show, “I find myself being lauded as ‘the’ American artist.”

Perhaps most significantly, some of his most striking paintings, prints and drawings were made while he lived on an Arlington hill farm called “Egypt,” which had stunning views of Bennington County and the southern Green Mountains in every direction.

Not surprisingly, the paintings he made there were often large landscapes. But these are landscapes with a message. Kent used the spectacular views to create spiritual allegories, and said that his work in those years was “a matter of evoking mood through landscape.”

His winter scene, “The Trapper,” does just that, capturing the chilly beauty and harsh realities of human survival in a dramatic wintry landscape that focuses on the lone figure of a man bearing a bloody fur. His painting “Nirvana,” strikes a gentler note: a man and a woman recline meditatively against a rock with a vast panorama of hills and farms spread out beyond them. An arc of shining clouds across the sky suggests – in Rockwell’s own visual lexicon - a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

More mysterious is the large painting “Autumn,” in which a lone androgynous nude figure stands erect, hands covering its face, while,  behind it, range upon range of vividly colored mountains march into the distance. Is the figure exulting in the beauty of the scene or expressing anguish? It’s impossible to say.

What can be said, however, is that this current show at the Bennington Museum, “Rockwell Kent’s Egypt,” is a brilliant and captivating tribute to this important artist’s important years in Vermont.

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