Taissumani, Sept. 20
Rockwell Kent — Artist in Greenland
The North has always attracted larger-than-life outsiders, some who would have made their mark anywhere, and others — I think of them as refugees from reality — who simply didn’t fit in anywhere else.
Rockwell Kent may have belonged in both camps. Now largely forgotten, he was a well-known American artist in the 1930s and 40s.
Kent was a restless spirit, a man who wandered. Comfort did not seem to be one of the requirements of the places that attracted him, for he lived variously in the wilderness of Alaska, the fierceness of the Strait of Magellan, a small house built on a hillside a short distance out of Brigus, Newfoundland, and thrice in Greenland. In addition to being an artist, he was a writer, an architect, a labour leader and a political activist.
Shipwrecked near Narsaq on his first foray to Greenland in 1929, Kent spent the summer there, completing nearly 40 paintings. On the ship that September, bound for Denmark, he met two well-known Danish Arctic heroes, Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen, both explorers, scientists and writers. He became and remained friends with both of them.
When I read through the voluminous correspondence between Kent and Freuchen some years ago at the Boston Public Library – in excess of 400 pages - I came to the conclusion that Freuchen must have had an affair with Kent’s wife. I asked a Kent scholar about this. Not so, he said, but Kent himself had had a torrid affair with Rasmussen’s wife. Good for her, I thought, for Rasmussen, who travelled extensively in the Arctic and elsewhere, generally leaving his wife at home, was himself a famous womanizer.
In the fall of 1929, Kent, joined by his second wife Frances, stayed with the Rasmussens at their home in Hundested, Denmark. Working in the attic apartment there, Kent completed more than half of the 280 drawings that he had been commissioned to make for a new edition of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick.
The next year Kent wrote North by East, the story of his trip to Greenland, hailed by critics as “one of the finest books of adventure written in our time.”
Kent went back to Greenland in the summer of 1931. Freuchen had recommended the village of Illorsuit on an island near Uummannaq as a suitable place for the wintering which Kent planned. Well above the Arctic Circle, Illorsuit had less than 200 people. Kent built a small house with supplies that he had had shipped from Denmark. Situated on a hill above the beach, it provided Kent a vantage point from which to observe village life. “Illorsuit is like a stage upon which the epic drama of the people deploys unendingly,” he wrote. “There, seen in sunlight and shadow, rain and snow, wind and calm, the people come out of their houses and perform their parts.”
One part was played by a young widow, Salamina, who became Kent’s housekeeper, and of course his mistress. Throughout the winter, despite the companionship provided by Salamina, Kent wrote often to his wife Frances. When she joined him in early summer, Salamina obligingly moved in with neighbours. Both women were less than pleased with Kent’s promiscuity, for his attentions were not confined only to them.
At Illorsuit, in addition to his prodigious output of art, Kent hunted, visited, taught carpentry to the local men, and built a dance hall. The peace of their idyllic paradise was broken by the arrival that summer of a seaplane carrying a German motion picture crew to make a film “S.O.S. Iceberg.” The leading lady, Leni Riefensthal, who would later become famous as Hitler’s film-maker, apparently rivalled Kent in the libido department. Male visitors to her tent were so frequent that the Greenlanders nicknamed her “The Mattress.” It is not recorded whether Kent was among those visitors.
Back in the United States, Kent embarked on a lecture tour. The grueling schedule of 44 cities kept him away for months. He lectured primarily on Greenland and the Greenlanders, the beauty of the land and of its people. And he longed to return.
to be continued next week