Winona's past, its present, and the work of the best-loved writer in the English language and of one of the foremost illustrators of all time are all intersecting today. Prints of famed artist and former Winonan Rockwell Kent's illustrations of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" are on exhibit at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) just in time for the opening weekend of the Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF). The prints are part of the world's largest collection of Kent originals. They are not on loan from a museum or a university, but from a man from New York who has been wooed by Winona's charm.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. Ralf Nemec, the owner of the world's largest collection of Rockwell Kent prints, arrived in Winona last week with prints from Kent's illustrated version of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." The prints are on display at the Minnesota Marine Art Musuem.
"I've pretty much spent half of my life — not to mention all of my finances — amassing this collection," said collector Ralf Nemec, laughing. "But quite frankly, after my experiences in Winona, it just made it so worthwhile."
Nemec is a "Kentophile" of epic proportions. Having gathered a nearly complete collection of Kent's work and "peripheral ephemera" like a mailed prospectus advertising new releases from the artist, Nemec is "intimately knowledgable with the minutia of Rockwell Kent."
Nemec visited for the first time for last year's Rockwell Kent Festival, where he showed off choice prints from his collection and gave presentations at Winona State and Saint Mary's universities. Swept up in his first experience of "Minnesota nice" and the river town's art community, he was soon introduced to GRSF and MMAM leaders. They convinced him to show off half of the Kent's 40 illustrations for the Shakespeare collection and donate a print for auction during the festival last summer. It went over like gangbusters.
"It was so well received. Over 3,000 people came to visit that exhibit," Nemec said. "Those were admission-paying visitors," he stressed, not just crowds lined up for a free show.
Now, Nemec is back in town, showing off the second half of the Kent-illustrated Shakespeare collection, including illustrations from this year's plays: "Hamlet" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." While Kent is best known for his illustrations of "Moby Dick," his dramatic and whimsical style is equally fitting for Shakespeare. In the deep shades of Kent's ink, a forlorn and regal Prince Hamlet cradles a sphere in his palm. A careful viewer may notice the sphere in the illustration is a skull: a scene that has become iconic of Shakespeare. In Kent's image of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," an oversized Falstaff wriggles into a buck basket with some forceful help.
"You can thank not so much my exuberance about Rockwell Kent, but the reception I received and the people who were so nice to me, personally," he said of his decision to return with more art to share. Last year, "people would come up to me and personally thank me for sharing my collection. It really tugged at my heart. It was really very emotional." Nothing is so rewarding for a true collector as having friends share in the excitement and enjoyment of the collection, he said.
Nemec is donating the inside cover illustration from the Kent-illustrated edition of Shakespeare, "Starry Night," for auction. After discovering that his copy had faded to yellow, Nemec sought out another one of the limited-edition, signed original copies.
"I didn't want to give anything less to the people of Winona," he said. "It wasn't an easy task finding that and it wasn't cheap either, but it had to be done." He added, "I have a very special place in my heart for Winona."
Nemec's collection is on display at the MMAM starting today and running through Sunday, August 3. For more information visit www.mmam.org.