The Unphotographable #3: Alaskan Paradise with Rockwell Kent

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — every Saturday, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

Impoverished, creatively depleted, and dogged by self-doubt amid a world torn by its first global war and its first global flu pandemic, the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) set out for the Far North with his nine-year-old son, also named Rockwell. “We came to this new land, a boy and a man, entirely on a dreamer’s search; having had vision of a Northern Paradise, we came to find it,” he wrote — an austere paradise in which he hoped to find peace and clarity, and ended up finding himself, as an artist and as a human being.
Previously: The Unphotographable #2: The Alps with Mary Shelley.


What a scene! Twin lofty mountain masses flanked the entrance and from the back of these the land dipped downwards like a hammock swung between them, its lowest point behind the center of the crescent. A clean and smooth, dark-pebbled beach went all around the bay, the tide line marked with driftwood, gleaming, bleached bones of trees, fantastic roots and worn and shredded trunks. Above the beach a band of brilliant green and then the deep, black spaces of the forest.

In Wilderness (public library) — his magnificent journal of solitude and creativity — he paints the remote Alaskan paradise they arrived into: