Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975)
Egg tempera and oil on linen, mounted on Masonite panel
© T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by
VAGA, New York, NY, www.vagarights.com
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston Salem, North Carolina, Museum
purchase with funds provided by Barbara B. Millhouse, Courtesy of Reynolda House
Museum of American Art. Art
ModernDallas.net repost of my article.
If you want to see the good, bad, and the ugly about the United States in early to mid twentieth century paintings, then Thomas Hart Benton is your man. Amon Carter Museum of American Art is featuring 100 works by Benton in a show titled American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. It has been quite a while since Benton has had a major exhibition and I find it quite interesting that he is paired with film making.
I was instantly reminded about two artists in Europe that were interested in film. In 2008, a documentary came out about the founders of cubism titled: Picasso and Braque go to the Movies. It was about early cinema’s huge influence on the development of their style and even color palettes. Benton on the other hand was influenced by lighting, set design, and staging a scene. I see Benton as focusing on the theatrical aspect of film. His murals were often montages of conflicting scenes and characters depicting meandering narratives. Some of the paintings in the shows were used for movie posters, because Benton was able to boil down a scene into just one picture. But many of the paintings feel more Broadway than Hollywood, because his scenes are filled with characters that are compacted onto one stage, rather than depicted in several scenes.
Benton’s style is often described as depicting people as caricatures. I see everything in his composition as caricature. From the landscape, to the objects around the people, everything is stylized and exaggerated. I know some have described him as a realist, but I don’t think this description even comes close to his style. Benton distorts things and people a little like an expressionist might distort a landscape or figure. I am somewhat put off by his pessimism, but then I have to remind myself that authors writing around his time like Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway also have a similar fatalistic approach. Maybe with a great deal more ambiguity than Benton, but I see him in that zeitgeist.
Benton was quite a traditionalist in that he did a lot of preparation for his competitions. Some evidence is here in the show with some drawings and sketches. He also made use of clay and live models to get the lighting and staged scenes just right. His paintings were gridded out and every element was in place when he executed his final paintings. I do admire his attention to detail and method of art production.
When opinions shifted against his work in the art world, there may have been a need of distance before another major exhibition was launched. I think the idea of pairing Benton with film helps viewers with a way into the work for a contemporary audience. However, it would be nice to see a show about Thomas Hart Benton that is purely about him as a retrospective. Lets hope it will not take another 25 years. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood ends on May 1st at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.