Youth Torn between Love and Desire (1916)
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art
The exhibition surveys the artist’s achievements from 1907 to the 1950s, including the artist’s travel narratives, illustrations for literary classics, and advertising designs, as well as works that illuminate his commitment to leftist politics from World War I through the McCarthy era. With over 100 works on paper, the exhibition also features watercolors, pen and ink drawings, a sketchbook, and lithographic stone that open a window onto the artist’s creative process.
“Kent’s fortunes rose and fell most dramatically during his lifetime,” says Brooks Rich, the Dorothy J. del Bueno Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “In the 1920s and 30s, when he achieved celebrity status, he was hailed as one of the most famous graphic artists in America. By the 1950s the artist’s reputation had suffered a decline, due in part to his support of controversial progressive causes and the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism in avant-garde art circles. Today, as his work attracts renewed interest, the rich collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art offer a fresh opportunity to reconsider the depth and complexity of his achievement.”
Drawn entirely from the holdings of the Museum, the exhibition begins with early black and white illustrative work, including Youth Torn between Love and Desire (1916) and Domino Room (1916), produced for Vanity Fair. The artist’s work from the 1920s highlights images and books that emerged from travels to Alaska, Greenland, and Tierra del Fuego. Voyaging (Self Portrait) (1924)places the writer/illustrator amid windswept branches and before snowcapped mountains, reflecting a time when feats of famous explorers were regular features in weekly magazines and newsreels. Kent contributed to over 140 books, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1930), The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (1934), and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1936), all represented in this exhibition. A life-long pacifist dedicated to socialist causes, the artist expressed his proletarian beliefs in Workers of the World Unite! (1937), a wood engraving of an idealized laborer wielding a shovel, and in the lithograph Wake Up America! (1945),a biting commentary on the state of democracy in America, showing a sleeping man next to an hourglass.