Thursday, December 29, 2016

Rockwell Kent's Burial of a Young Man

I can't tell you how many times I've been to some museums. Part of it was that my ex- worked at both the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, which gave me uncommon access to both, as well. At the National Gallery we attended every opening gala from the autumn of 1994 through the spring of 2002. That's how I came to consult the recently late John Glenn's wife on Chinese fruit at the dessert buffet, and eat a meal featuring a side of morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns sitting next to the notorious RBG! and pee next to the former PBS anchor and presidential debate moderator, Jim Lerher.

It has been a great gift to have access to such amazing art and for some years I made it a practice whenever I visit any museum, but expecially one with which I am very familiar to let my eye choose one or two works and spend some serious time just "being" with the art. Let it speak to me, tell me it's secrets. Today at the Phillips, one of those paintings was this one by Rockwell Kent called "Burial of a Young Man".
Before long I am channelling my inner Sister Wendy. My front teeth go slightly buck, and I begin reciting the narrative of what I am seeing in my mind: This was a work that Kent accomplished between 1908 and 1911. It reflects his experiences in stark places like Alaska and Greenland where he travel many times and stayed for many weeks to months. He even took a lover in Greenland. (Sister Wendy always finda a way to being in the sex!) The brush strokes in the painting are crude, rudimentary, harsh. The mourners nearly a uniform group of faceless silhouettes until you come the widow and her daughter who are dressed in an ephemeral crystal blue like angels floating in a forest of mortals. And the body of the young man floats, too--prone and naked, without shame, free from the trappings that burden and overwhelm the mourners. Next to him walks his spirit, as naked as he, but invisible to the others. And look at the mountians. All of them are formed with contrours of a maudlin shade of blue, shadows of forms that flow like water, like terrestrial tears weeping for this young man's untimely death. It's a magnificent work!

And what SIster Wendy's spirit doesn't know, but I do, is that this painting was not a random purchase by Duncan Phillips. It was purchased in 1918, after the death of his beloved brother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Few if any other of the works in the collection held for Phillips the emotional resonance of this painting. It is also significant that the Phillips Collection itself owns more Rockwell Kent paintings than any other gallery in the United States; Kent himself donated the vast majority of his large works to the Soviet Union in protest of his coming under suspicion of being a communist during the McCarthy Witchhunts of the 1950's. One of the things I love about Kent, his "in for a penny, in for a pound" devil may care approach to life. Today, his greatest works reside in 3 museums in Russia and 1 in Armenia.

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