Thomas Hart Benton Part 2: Before and After America Today

Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton
Self Portrait, Thomas Hart Benton

1.

Two years after returning from studies in Paris at the Académie Julian, the young painter Thomas Hart Benton, now living in lower Manhattan, was hired by a former roommate, Rex Hitchcock, to work as a scenic researcher and set designer for the movies. Benton’s salary was $7 a week. Hitchcock soon changed his name to Rex Ingram, and by this name he became one of the most celebrated film directors of the silent era, with credits such as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Prisoner of Zenda and Mare Nostrum.

Rex Ingram
Rex Ingram

In the spring of 1917, Benton moved across the Hudson River to Fort Lee, N.J., to be closer to the center of New York’s vital film production. One of his assignments was painting large scenic backdrops in black and white. Even before his exposure to the Mexican muralists in the 1920s (though he had earlier known Diego Rivera in Paris) Benton was able to conceive large-scale painting. It’s also not difficult to imagine that his early work in the movies influenced the strong dramatic and storytelling techniques found in his most famous mural cycles, narratives bursting with barely arrested motion and stuffed chock-a-block with compelling characters, many of them colleagues, such as his student Jackson Pollock.

Biographer Henry Adams recounts in his expansive Benton study that the artist was even briefly drafted into acting. He quotes Benton:

One time Rex got it into his head that I might be made into an actor and gave me a part in a barroom scene with paddy Sullivan and Jimmy Kelly and a lot of the other pugs of those days who put on the fights for the movies. When that picture came out, it went into theaters in Missouri and some friends of my father saw it, recognized me, and told him about it. The old man was outraged and wrote me a scathing letter about where my artistic ambitions were leading me.

A few months later, in an unrelated incident, Ingram was fired. Benton moved back to Manhattan, where he continued to paint and teach, becoming involved with a number of community art classes and galleries. His proletarian leftist inclinations, already strong from his Midwest origins, became even more pronounced. His quip, “Where my artistic ambitions were leading me,” was in short order reflected in his painting, as he began to move away from the European avant-garde and Synchronist leanings that had been the bulwark of his style. Even so, he continued to use Synchronist structure in his new landscapes. This constructivist approach found critical analysis in the writings of Willard Wright and Thomas Craven and their evocation of Cezanne’s Cubism. Wright was one of the first to articulate the sculptural dynamism and proto-Precisionist tropes that Benton was beginning to explore:

For the development of a complete rhythm extending through large masses of sculptural form, modern art has uncovered no gift like that of Thomas H. Benton, a painter who seems to belong to neither his own department nor to the domain of sculpture.

The Cliffs, Thomas Hart Benton
The Cliffs, Thomas Hart Benton

Seeking a stylistic break from New York’s self-absorption, Benton spent much of the 1920s traveling throughout the United States, documenting in his sketchbooks hundreds of drawings from life — a record of every geographical, industrial, agrarian, social and cultural bit of American lore he could find. Later in the decade, this visual encyclopedia became the raw material of his murals. Many portraits depicted in the cycle of America Today were developed from these sketchbooks.

I recently wrote about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition of America Today. (You can read that post here.)

After posting that entry, I received the museum’s Winter 2015 bulletin, a quarterly publication provided to all museum members. (It can also be purchased here.) The Met bulletin usually explores in considerable detail a single theme or artist that’s topical to upcoming exhibitions or recent acquisitions. The entire Winter 2015 issue is dedicated to the Benton mural cycle.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Winter 2015 bulletin
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Winter 2015 bulletin

The AXA Equitable Corporation donated America Today to the Met in December 2012. Prior to the current exhibition, its 10 panels underwent restoration to partly correct three restorations done by the artist himself. When its temporary installation in the American Wing closes in late April, the entire cycle will be moved to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for Modern and Contemporary Art for permanent installation in a dedicated room that closely replicates the work’s original exhibition site. Benton’s masterwork of American Regionalism will not only join that of modernist European masters, but will also be sited near the Met’s seminal canvases of mid 20th century’s New York Abstract Expressionists — colleagues (and former students) who long ridiculed Benton’s work for its unapologetic vigor and heroic, exaggerated figuration. A video from the MetCollects series affords an overview of the work and its history, acquisition and current installation:

The Met bulletin features detailed background about the research, preparation and execution of the mural cycle, which Benton painted in 1930-’31 for the New School for Social Research. Each panel presents a compelling narrative of the American experience by geographical region and economic productivity, along with emotional portraits of its people. Images from Benton’s sketchbooks are included alongside the text; a detailed analysis of each panel brings a cinematic animation to the total cycle. The bulletin documents the far-flung travel and research that Benton undertook to create each of the sections.

The writer Stephanie L. Herdrich discusses the difficulty Benton had in gaining access to certain industries, such as coalmines and steel factories:

Benton’s attempts to visit coalmines were met with suspicion by guards and superintendents, who accused the artist of trespassing. Benton recorded his encounters with miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia in his travels in 1928, lamenting that “they were tied to the coal lands with their stinking palls of smoke, long rows of gas-erupting coke ovens, and dark miseries of disorganized union battle where at the time the miners’ potential power for improving their lot was lost in fratricidal animosity, in racial hate, and in the chicaneries of low politics.”

The Benton quote is from his 1937 autobiography, An Artist in America. It is typical of the expressive literacy of his writing, an equal to his painting.

5.benton auto biog.

No less a writer than H.L. Mencken described Benton’s prose as vibrant and smart, suggesting the artist was a born writer.  In a foreword to a revised 1951 edition Clarence R. Decker writes:

Tom writes well. He has style---a style as peculiarly his own as the energetic contours, the restless rhythms, the violent perspectives, the striking chiaroscuro, the superb over-all integration of his pictures [reporting] an amazing amount of factual detail with the pungency and poignancy of the best feature journalism.

The autobiography is also an extraordinary sociopolitical journey across and around America of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the nation’s muscular growth, dogged by its Depression-era ills, defined an ethos that is still alive today. Benton’s writing is not just an artist’s notebook, but also a catalog of America’s work and its people, and a jeremiad on the exploitation of the country he knows as only a citizen from the heartland can.

Promotional copy for the book’s most recent fourth revised edition places Benton in the context of the intellectual milieu of his time:

Although Benton is most famous as a regionalist painter and muralist, his complex and fascinating career brought him into contact with many of the most important artists and thinkers of the century, including Jackson Pollock, Grant Wood, Julian Huxley, Felix Frankfurter, Eugene Debbs, John Reed and Harry Truman. While living in New York and on Martha's Vineyard in the 1920s and 1930s, Benton often associated with leading intellectuals and radicals. However, when his evolving principles of art led him away from an interest in Marxism, he was bitterly attacked by many of his former friends, and his account of that time reveals strikingly the fierce critical battles he faced in trying to establish his own artistic vision.

2.

Aside from the cinematic influences on Benton’s murals, his frequent creation of three-dimensional clay maquettes lends an additional sense of depth and animation to the paintings. All of this emphasis on figuration, especially the exaggerated musculature and distorted extremities and faces that are reminiscent of El Greco, distanced Benton even more from the dominant aesthetic of the post-World War II mainstream, which was obsessed with a near Cistercian disdain for any hint of figuration. Benton’s murals after America Today featured an even more Baroque figuration.

Whether he had a geographical/political bias as a native son, or whether he simply believed it so, Benton regarded his very crowded mural cycle in the Missouri state capitol lounge as his best work. Titled The Social History of the State of Missouri, this 1936 work mixes historical and fictional figures in a rich mashup. Jammed into a 25’ x 50’ room, the figures seem to fight for space and prominence. There are few of the expansive backgrounds that are suggested in parts of America Today.

There is a fascinating walkthrough of the Jefferson City murals in a locally produced documentary by Ozarks Public Television. It lacks the sophistication of a more generously funded film, but it does offer a kind of insider’s view of how Benton is perceived as a local hero. Missouri artist Charles Banks Wilson offers insights about his friend’s themes and style, alluding to Benton’s abiding interest in cartoon style. As a teenager, Benton created cartoons for the local newspaper, The Joplin American. Part 1 of the video opens with Benton paddling a canoe down the Buffalo River. (The video starts with a minute of color bars and academy leader you can easily skip.)

In Part 2, guide Bob Priddy, a local newsman, presents a perspective on Benton that is radically different from the fiercely opinionated one of Robert Hughes in American Visions. We also get a look at a single-panel mural the city of Joplin commissioned from Benton to celebrate its centennial in 1973. The video shows the artist’s preparatory sketches and his three-dimensional maquette, details not found in more scholarly videos.

3.

Hollywood, Thomas Hart Benton
Hollywood, 1937-38, Thomas Hart Benton
Screening Room, Thomas Hart Benton
Screening Room, Thomas Hart Benton

Pencil sketching and cartoon figuration have always been important to filmmakers, even more so today because of intricate storyboards and previsualizations. Benton’s drawing skills, his early experiences with production in Fort Lee, his frequent use of a draped proscenium artifice, and his painting Departure of the Joad Family (which served as the dust jacket for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) all suggest a rich and largely untapped intersection between Benton’s art and filmmaking.

7. steinbeck grapes

Benton’s painting of the Joads was even included in 20th Century Fox’s one sheet for the film:

8. the-grapes-of-wrath-poster-art-with-thomas-hart-benton-illustration-1940-339671

Much has been written about the movie’s great cinematographer, Gregg Toland, and his referencing of FSA photographs by Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shawn, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. This cinematographer can’t help wondering if Benton and Toland crossed paths during the film’s production.

Since seeing America Today at the Met last December, I have sought out what little critics and scholars have so far written about Benton and Hollywood. It came as a welcome surprise to find a 2012 L.A. Times blog mentioning that the museum closest to Benton’s heart (the Nelson-Atkins) is mounting an exhibition later this year devoted to the artist’s Hollywood connections.

The Kansas City Museum will open the exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood in October 2015. It will travel, but not, apparently, to Los Angeles. The museum’s website cites the artist’s ties to the world of filmmaking:

Benton's early experiences on silent movie sets in Fort Lee, New Jersey — the first "Hollywood" — and later in Hollywood itself influenced his acute awareness of contemporary storytelling's shift toward movies and inspired his signature style of painting that melded centuries-old traditions with more recent movie-production techniques to tell stories that appealed to a broad range of Americans.

The exhibition’s companion book, partly written by Austen Barron Bailly, the curator of American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., will be published in June.

9. benton hollywood book

This major exhibition will present another opportunity to reconsider the rich vision of this maverick artist, a man so unapologetically and deeply rooted in the American myth and ethos that it is only now, several decades after his death, that we can dismiss the earlier prejudicial judgments of the Eastern intellectual elite and embrace Benton's singular vision of the American land and its people.

Benton at work
Benton at work on Susannah and Elders.

NEXT: Artists of Earth and Sky at the Met 

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