Artist Rockwell Kent followed Moby Dick to the ends of the earth

For me, this is Rockwell Kent’s most magnificent evocation of Moby Dick. We see him breaching in the night, an act of exultation which demonstrates his godlike presence in the sea, and his cosmic relationship to the heavens. This is hardly an evil whale.

Moby-Dick prints by Rockwell Kent

And then there were humans and leviathans, both pursuing light and the night. Where to? Why? Because Ahab is evil? Or is the white whale? Melville found horror in whiteness, but his profound and prescient chapter on the subject deflects nearly as much as it reflects.

For artist Rockwell Kent, deep in that same pursuit, the devil was in the details, the textures of truth. Enter here. You may begin to feel the night engulfing, and lacerating. Kent actually produced 280 noir-Deco woodcuts for the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, and so charged the era’s imagination that Melville’s behemoth tale, long homeless for a meaningful audience, became palatable, bite by bite. The 135 short chapters, such an orgy of wonder and mystery, found their brethren in images.

And the forsaken story finally found its audience, with the printmaker’s incalculable assist. I recently responded to an NPR survey about the single work of art that changed one’s life, and chose this book, and shared how Kent’s work primed me for the great American odyssey. But another recent blog, from which most of these images are borrowed, prompted me to flesh out Kent’s work more than before. That blog, A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick, is also recommended especially …for Moby-Dick doubters and procrastinators.

A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick: Episode 1

Begin with zealous artistry, probing atmosphere and characterization, and tale-spinning flourish, if I may offer something of the meaningfulness of these images. I invite you to soak them up and read the short comment texts included. You may be on your way to the sea’s beckoning horizon.

Some include full-page reproductions of Melville’s book, with text and illustration, for a counterpoint of mind and eye, from the ground-breaking 1930 edition (still available in a Modern Library a paperback edition). Kent was a knife-wielding poet of shadow and light, as you begin to see in the first image, from the chapter entitled “The Counterpane.” The counterpane (quilt) and arms dance amid their rest. In the text, notice how narrator Ishmael focuses on the visual effect of his experience. But in that moment? Where do dreams go to live, or die? Comedy lies waiting, as much as fate, but so much more!

Below, we see Ahab (who doesn’t appear in the book until Chapter 28) in two telling moments. First, he gazes defiantly into the sea light, infernal for him. We then should let Melville’s words introduce him, with the first page of “Sunset” (Chapter 37), our post’s first indication of the narrator’s sense of the power of atmosphere for his story, and for his subject. The second image below shows Ahab full-figure, master of his domain, if not of his wretchedly magnificent mind. Note the small hole in the deck carved out to steady his whalebone leg — Moby-Dick’s hellish handiwork, and the virtual spleen driving the tale.

Arguably the second most colorful character in Moby-Dick besides Ahab (if not Moby Dick himself) is the Polynesian first harpoonist Queequeg. Covered with tattoos, he’s a king in his native land; sells, and prays to, shrunken heads; and memorably befriends the narrator, a relationship that, in its way, begets the whole story, as the final chapter reveals. Here Melville introduces Queequeg in the chapter “Biographical.” The scene depicted may reference a later chapter, “The Monkey Rope” where he attempts a stunt-like action during whale-cutting with Ishmael, situated at the other end of the chain. He saves Ishmael’s life.

This print below exemplifies Kent’s mastery of what would become known as noir atmosphere, which would almost simultaneously begin being exploited by film-makers (see previous blog):

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

. The two crew members and the backdrop create a stunning mood and composition, with Kent brilliantly sculpting light and darkest shadow. Perhaps such a scene was inspired by Melville’s contemplation of “the darkness of blackness,” an inherent American condition, he believed, derived from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great writer to whom Melville dedicated his masterpiece.

The following three prints share a beautiful affinity and, thanks to a blog’s latitudes, I decided not to choose among them. Rather, I want to allow them together, along with the preceding print, to cast a long shadow of spiritual striving and unease, from Kent to you. Such stunning atmospherics might take him anywhere in his artistic quest. But he was working very much in Melville’s expansive and doomed milieu. Such strangeness, such black beauty. It was genius meeting genius.

Below, we get a taste of the deep learning pervading this epic. Here the mythological character Vishnoo alights upon a whale with seeming preternatural ease. Ishmael compares him heroically to Hercules, St. George, and Jonah, aptly it seems. Yet he’s not an immortal God, rather but one dueling with destiny.

For me, this below is one of Kent’s most breathtaking images. Is he taking artistic license with the scale between the whale and whaling boat? To a hardy crew at sea for many months, stretched to their human limits, having to live with the existential risk of the whale hunt, it may hardly seem an illusion.

And finally comes the long-awaited chase of the White Whale, now successfully transformed into a hated entity by the demagogic Ahab, hypnotizing his crew, all but first mate Starbuck. And then, “He raised a gull-like cry in the air, ‘Thar she blows! — Thar she blows! A hump like a snow-hill. It is Moby Dick!’ ” Here we see natural excitement foaming with the monomaniacal captain’s greed and vengeance.

 

Artist Rockwell Kent demonstrates above the spectacular power of Moby-Dick in this image. Kent’s work predates a number of brilliantly-realized illustrated editions of the book. But, for me, that edition has never been surpassed. For example, the image above I believe inspired the cover of a 2007 edition of the novel, a “Longman Critical Edition” (below). But that striking yet odd Longman image fails to show the source of the explosive disruption, the whale himself.

Courtesy amazon.com

However, as successful artistically and commercially as the Kent-illustrated volume was, it had one glaring flaw, readily evident on the cover (below). There’s no indication that Herman Melville is the author! Rockwell also designed the book cover, which might help explain how Melville’s name was overlooked. Marketing doubtlessly had the other hand in that decision. Random House likely figured they had a great coup with Kent’s illustrations. In the Art Deco 1920s, he may have been better-known than Melville himself. It was yet another of a long series of insults and betrayals — now posthumous — to a great American writer who struggled mightily for his art, and to support a large extended family. 1.

Moby Dick or the Whale" (1930) book by Herman Melville illustrated by Rockwell Kent. sold at auction on 1st February | Bidsquare

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  1. Picky pedantics might also object that the Random-House cover failed to hyphenate Moby-Dick which was Melville’s chosen title (subtitled “Or, The Whale”) for the book, even though the whale’s name in the book’s text has no hyphen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
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As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed, as the museum was closing for the day. I didn’t have time to return before flying back home. The great work moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
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And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
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Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
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Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
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That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some readers of this blog might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many readers understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
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The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his 228 woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
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So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. Courtesy “History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature: Herman Melville.”
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Yet it persists, remaining afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Sascha Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
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On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip seeing God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
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1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159

Jeffrey Foucault replenishes his music in the streams of “Blood Brothers”

Album review: Jeffery Foucault — Blood Brothers (Blueblade Records)

After the brooding introspection of his previous album, Salt as Wolves, singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault comes up for big gulps of air, and perhaps his most genial album. It’s down-home music & poetry in a firm, warm handclasp.

Yet, even while striving to connect, Foucault takes chances. The title song “Blood Brothers,” hung on a descending bass line alluring as low-hanging fruit, is a love ode between men, yet sexually ambiguous. It recalls the fast friendship between surprise bedmates Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, which Foucault celebrated in his very first album.1

This artist’s work is hard-earned. He throws all of himself into his song, yet the balance between reflection and passion sounds effortless. Foucault’s singing is dusky, beguiling and grainy as uncut wheat, yet as nuanced as a sideways-drifting wind.

The internationally acclaimed, East Coast-based, Whitewater, Wis. native is currently (and arguably) the Upper Midwest’s strongest roots music export (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesota-native Bob Dylan is sort of in his own category).

Foucault’s a guy who’s hardly figured everything out, but he sure knows how to say what swims in his brain and in the blood from his heart. That organic metaphor, as far as it goes, belies the great labor of craft underlying this music. His writing seems unpolished, but as right as rain. Still, he exudes utterly disarming humility. Blood brother or not, he feels like the first guy you invite for a backyard barbecue.

Photo montage courtesy YouTube

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1 Though he doesn’t identify the source, in his liner notes to his debut album Miles from the Lightning (2001), Foucault quotes from the end of the highly comical Ch. 12 — “Biographical,” from Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The aptness to Blood Brothers prompts me to revisit the quote, with context. First-time whaling sailor Ishmael quickly bonds with the lead harpoonist, the Polynesian Queequeg, for the ship they’ll sail on, when the two men are forced to share a bed in a crowded Spooner Inn, before they embark on The Pequod.:

“His story ended with his pipe’s last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine and, blowing out the light, we rolled over from one another, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.”

This view was published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express:Foucault review