Rockwell Kent and the Cape Cinema Mural

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Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) in Greenland, c. 1930,Unidentified Photographer, Rockwell Kent Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Part of the Cape Cinema’s appeal comes from the high contrast between outside and in. The church-like exterior is patterned after the nearby town of Centerville’s Congregational Church. The murals you might expect inside–of a Puritan religious gathering or colonists working–are instead of exuberant figures dancing across the ceiling. Within the space of a few feet, just by crossing the lobby, we travel from stern New England to lush Art Deco.

Dennis’s Cape Cinema is open year round, in the summer months for art-house movies and some live concerts and in the winter for Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performances. The movies are selected by Eric Hart, the cinema’s manager, and George Mansour. Mansour has been booking art-house films for more than forty years and is a consultant for the Angelika Cinemas.

The cinema forms part of a larger cultural campus with the Cape Playhouse (formerly a Unitarian Meeting House) and the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The Playhouse was founded in 1927 and it bills itself as the oldest professional summer theater in America.  The cinema is well located since it is at the Cape’s midpoint. It is well located in another way–far away from multiplex viewing– shoebox proportioned rooms, jolting sound, and the assault of snack advertisements.

Rockwell Kent was commissioned in 1930 to design the ceiling decoration for the Cape Cinema.  The mural, following the barrel vault, is painted in oil on strips of canvas affixed to the ceiling. Like many ceiling murals and frescoes, because of their expanse, it is difficult to take in all at once and also to photograph. Broadly speaking, it is made up of three thematic sections. The part closest to the lobby has the Taurus and Dog constellations. [figs. 1-2] The largest section in the middle has a band of four man/woman pairs dancing without the tow and nuisance of gravity. [figs. 3-6] It appears that the figures are repeated, moving in time, as if in a sequence of film frames. The section closest to the stage has two figures reaching out to a sun-like body, possibly suggesting Castor and Pollux, known also as Gemini. [figs. 7-9] Prometheus giving fire to man has also been suggested for these two figures by the screen.  Taurus, the Dog Star, and the possible Gemini figures are red-orange, really coral, in color and this sets them apart from the dancing figures that are blue. It is worth noting that Taurus, Gemini and the Dog Star are all visible in the winter sky. As the subject is not concretely clear, the influences are also not direct, but Paul César Helleu’s 1912 mural with the constellations at Grand Central Station in New York City and Pierre Matisse’s dance canvases of 1909/10 almost certainly influenced Kent. [editor’s note: a zodiacal vault is also to be seen in the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. The theme has been a topos of theatrical decoration since the Renaissance at least, as a representation of the varieties of human character and the vicissitudes of life. The designers of Shakespeare’s Globe in London saw fit to depict the zodiac over the stage.]

Rockwell Kent, Cape Cinema Murals, 1930. Click image to enlarge.
1. Taurus 2. The Dog 3. Dancing Couple
4. Dancing Couple: Gouache Study 5. Dancing Couple 5. Dancing Couple with Reluctant Woman
6. Another Dancing Couple 7. Gouche Study for Castor or Pollux (Gemini) 8. Castor or Pollux (Gemini)
9. Castor or Pollux (Gemini) 10. Gouache Study in the Cape Cod Museum of Art 11. Paul Frankl – Cape Cinema Chairs, 1930

In the lobby of the cinema there are two preparatory studies in pen and black ink and pale orange and black gouache [in which Kent stylishly imitated Attic red-figure vase painting -ed/].  The single figure drawing is a study for the figure by the stage and the drawing with two figures is for a pair of dancers. The ceiling figures correspond very closely to the drawings.   At the Cape Cod Museum, just next door, there is a study for the central group of dancers. [fig. 10] In the museum gouache, the most finished and beautiful of the three drawings, there are three couples, rather than the four on the ceiling and two rows of horses in profile on either side of the dancers. The horses were edited out, never making it to the ceiling. Another difference is that the blue of the ceiling is a good deal darker than the blue of the gouache. None of these drawings have been squared for transfer and it would be interesting to find squared or even annotated drawings. At the New York Public Library branch at Lincoln Center there are also some “photostats” of Kent’s drawings which should be studied.

Raymond Moore, founder and impresario of the Playhouse and Cinema contracted with Rockwell Kent for the design of the murals, but the work of transferring and painting the designs on the 6,400 square foot span was done by Kent’s collaborator Jo Mielziner (1901-1976) and a crew of stage set painters working in New York City. The reason given for Rockwell Kent’s not painting and overseeing the work himself, is that he didn’t want to visit Massachusetts after the Sacco and Vanzetti execution of 1927.  Too many martinis was the excuse he gave for having accepted the commission in the first place. However, he did go to Dennis in June of ’30 and spent three days on the scaffolding, making suggestions and corrections. The signatures of both Kent and Mielziner appear on opposite walls of the cinema.

Mielziner was a huge figure in 20th century set design. He won five Tony Awards for his work. Two important productions, from the more than 250 plays he worked on, were A Street Car Named Desire and Look Homeward, Angel.   He also did lighting and costume design and in his later years worked as a consultant to architects planning theaters. As an aside, Mielziner during WWII worked in Washington designing camouflage for the military.  Another person associated with the murals is Ellen Goldsborough. She was Kent’s assistant in New York who worked with him on the designs. She later went on to do costume design, including I Am a Camera (NYC 1951) which starred Julie Harris, a star and patron saint of Cape Cod theater.

Kent spent most of his life in New York, growing up in Tarrytown and as an adult in Au Sable Forks, near Plattsburgh. His family wanted him to have a practical profession and encouraged his study of architecture at Columbia. While studying for his degree, he took the summer to study painting with William Merrit Chase on Long Island and soon after decided to drop out of Columbia. He also worked with Abbot Henderson Thayer and Robert Henri. Henri suggested he go to paint on Monhegan Island in Maine. Kent in a 1969 interview says of his early years (1905 – 1910) on Monehegan where, beyond painting landscapes, he worked as a carpenter, lobsterman, and well digger: “I could swing the sledge all day, an eight-hour day, day after day. It was marvelous. And it was wonderful to work with people and to feel that I was a workingman. Because I’d come to have disrespect for people who just painted pictures – on-lookers on life: commentators on life. I was part of life itself…”

It is difficult to take in just how active and productive Rockwell Kent was.  He took numerous long trips to icy places: Newfoundland, Greenland, Alaska and Terra del Fuego, sometimes with a wife (he had three) and children (five), and always painting and writing about his adventures.  In 1930, the year of the Cinema, his “N by E” both written and illustrated by Kent was published. It is about his sailing to Greenland with just two other people and their shipwreck. That year also saw the publication of his illustrations to Melville’s Moby Dick which contributed more to his fame than anything other work or project.  Kent also designed logos (Random House’s is still in use) and advertisements, was a printmaker, an architectural draftsman, a labor organizer and leader, lectured, designed tableware, ran a dairy farm, and also ran for Congress and lost. (Rockwell Kent customarily was up at five in the morning and worked until ten at night.)

Kent joined the Socialist Party in 1904 and remained a lifelong leftist.  Over the years he provided artwork for posters, whether for union workers or for aid to Spanish Republicans; joined picketers; wrote many letters of protest to politicians; and donated money to sympathetic causes.  Not surprisingly, he had to appear before Joe McCarthy’s committee, HUAC, in 1953. He also had to suffer the indignity of having his passport taken away by the State Department, something he challenged in a series of court cases culminating in the Kent v. Dulles case of 1958. The Supreme Court sided with Kent saying that the right to travel is an inherent liberty, regardless of political affiliation. Kent had tremendous strength and nerve in dealing with everything from scary politicians to shipwrecks: he filmed the boat taking on water.  In 1957/58 Kent had an amazingly successful exhibition, on view both in Moscow and Leningrad, which attracted more than half a million visitors. He was unable to attend because his case had not yet been heard. After the Supreme Court case, Kent and his wife traveled frequently to the Soviet Union and donated a large number of canvases and drawings to its citizens.  The website of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg shows some of these works. In 1967 Rockwell Kent was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and he donated part of his prize money to North Vietnamese widows and children. Sometimes Kent’s falling out of favor is attributed to his political leanings. However, it seems more the fascination with Pollock, Rothko and the Abstract Expressionists in America and the constant spotlight on Picasso in Europe that caused the decline in interest in his art. Kent disliked and made fun of abstract art.

Eric Hart, the manager/curator, of the Cape Cinema remembers visiting the cinema many years ago and seeing parts of the ceiling’s canvas bubbling and hanging down. The theatre underwent restoration in 1981 by conservators from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Hart thinks that it will soon be time for more conservation work. He envisions having more live music concerts and from that earn enough money to restore the interior, including the fabulous chairs, and to install solar panels on the vast roof. The chairs are the work of Paul Frankl (1886-1958), a Viennese born designer who worked first in New York where he was famous for his skyscraper style furniture and later in Los Angeles. [fig. 10] They are lacquered bentwood with suede upholstery and have white partial slipcovers that are both attractive and cooling for the summer. The clapboard building itself was designed by Alfred Easton Poor (1899–1988) most famous for his Wright Brothers Memorial in Kittyhawk, NC, but also known for public housing projects, including Red Hook in Brooklyn, and government buildings in Washington. He was known for his conservative style and this building, at least the exterior, is perfectly conservative.

The stage’s curtain is really a folding screen, patterned after Japanese screens. Each side has half of a brilliant and enormous sun. Kent talked about the sun radiating from the screen and the moon’s rays from the projector.  Movie viewing couldn’t be more pleasant than between these sun and moonbeams and beneath the theatrical sky.

The street address for the campus is 820 Route 6A, Dennis Village, MA 02638, and the cinema’s address within the complex is 35 Hope Lane.  The telephone number is (508) 385-2503.

About the author

Lucy Vivante

Lucy Vivante is an art dealer, translator, travel writer, and food expert who lives in Italy. She writes on old master drawings in her blog, Vivante Drawings.

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