Taissumani, Sept. 27
Rockwell Kent and Salamina, Part 2
Rockwell Kent had returned to America from his second trip to Greenland. His lecture tour was successful, but he longed to return to the Arctic.
Kent mortgaged his home — named Asgaard after a location in Norse mythology — to raise funds for a return to Greenland.
This time he took his14-year-old son, Gordon, from his first marriage, with him.
This did not at all deter him from resuming his relationship with Salamina. While Gordon spent his days learning hunting and travelling from the local men, Kent worked long hours on the manuscript of a book about his previous trip to Illorsuit.
He wrote often to Frances. Although it took a long time for the mail to be delivered, he became concerned when, after five months, he had not received a single letter in reply. Finally a message arrived. Frances had had enough. She hadn’t had Rockwell to herself in Greenland, and she had barely had him at home at all in the interim between his Greenland visits. She was wintering in Arizona and would not be coming to Greenland. Kent was devastated. He had planned to spend a second winter in Greenland, but quickly abandoned that idea. He and Gordon left for Denmark on the first ship. He would never return to Greenland.
The book he had laboured on was published in October 1935, under the title “Salamina.” In typical Kent fashion — who exactly was he trying to shock? — it was named for his mistress but dedicated to his wife (Frances), and contained racy recounting of his sexual affairs with other village women. The New Yorker even published a cartoon of three Inuit women waiting outside Kent’s village home, calling out, “Can Rockwell come out, Mrs. Kent?” The book didn’t help his marriage. Frances and he divorced in 1940. He remarried the same year.
Kent, an avowed communist, became quite politically active in America, becoming President of the International Workers Order. When he for a renewal of his passport, the government refused to issue one. Kent took legal action. He described the issue this way: “It’s very much, you know, like a woman forbidding a man to go outdoors, and he says ‘The heck with that, I will go out.’ She says, ‘I can stop that by stealing your pants.’ They’ve stolen my pants in taking my passport and I want my pants back.” Kent got his pants back, in a decision that has had lasting impact — his victory “allows all U. S. Citizens the right to travel regardless of their political affiliation.”
None of this endeared him to Joseph McCarthy, the influential senator famous for destroying the careers of any American suspected of communist sympathies. But even the irrepressible Kent was diminished by the tragedy of McCarthyism. He continued to paint, but his works didn’t sell well. Following a successful exhibition of his work in 1957-8 at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1957-8, Kent was inspired to make another gesture of defiance toward his own government; he gave 800 drawings and 80 paintings to the Soviet Union, to “help a little toward world peace.” Almost half of the paintings were of Greenland. This fact alone makes the curating of a major Kent exhibition a difficult task — paintings must be borrowed from a number of museums, many in the former Soviet Union, some in republics that are no longer of Russia.
Kent was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967. He announced that the prize money should be used for the benefit of the women and children of North and South Vietnam.
In 1960 Kent made a large copy of one of his best works from Illorsuit. The original was of an iceberg frozen in to the sea ice in front of the community. But in the copy, Kent painted himself into the picture, the artist painting on a canvas attached to the upstanders of his dogsled. “The Artist in Greenland,” as he titled it, was a symbolic return of Kent to the community he had loved so much.
Salamina married the year after Kent’s last departure from Greenland, but she died two years later, still a young woman in her early thirties. Rockwell Kent, Frances, and Kent’s son, Gordon, established a fund in her honour, “Salamina’s Fund in memory of Salamina Fleischer Møller.” Its purpose was to provide support to needy women and children in the Umanak District.
Rockwell Kent died at the age of 88 in 1971. The New York Times described him as “a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man…” He was certainly that, and much more.