Print nostalgia: Skeuomorphism and Rockwell Kent's woodblock style

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This essay explores the oeuvre of Rockwell Kent, focusing on his wood engravings and the black-and-white woodblock-style ink drawings he made for book illustrations and advertising campaigns. I categorize those woodblock-style drawings as “skeuomorphs”: objects that retain as aesthetic decorations features that were once characteristic marks of their production or function. Kent’s ink drawings are skeuomorphic in that they retain the appearance of wood engraving, although they were created during a time in which wood engraving was not a necessary or current technology for reproducing images in print. The essay places wood engraving and the woodblock style in historical context, locating Kent’s work in a wider movement of early twentieth-century artists who made recourse to strenuous labor, authentic experience, and the “usable past” of American history. Kent’s woodblock prints and the woodblock-style drawings reveal his longing for unalienated preindustrial labor, his political discomfort with his own social and professional privileges, and, at the same time, his complicity with the commercialism of the art world in the early twentieth century. These discrepancies are thrown into relief especially in Kent’s illustrations for the reprint of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1930. Kent’s illustrations and Melville’s text engage in different politics, even as both valorize maritime labor. In Melville’s original presentation of Moby-Dick in 1851, nostalgia operates as a radical critique of capitalism, but in 1930, the skeuomorphic quality of Kent’s illustrations signals the artist’s participation in the market.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2-25
Number of pages24
JournalAmerican Art
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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