An American Epic

It’s rare, wandering Salem’s world-class Peabody Essex Museum, for me to have a feeling of familiarity. Indeed, becoming familiar with the far away and/or long-ago is part of the reason I wander those halls in the first place.

So, it was especially strange to encounter references to my hometown in the labels for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” the first major exhibition of the Kansas City artist in 25 years.

Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait With Rita, 1922 Oil on canvas 49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney, NPG.75.30 Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Self Portrait With Rita, 1922
Oil on canvas
49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney,
NPG.75.30
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In my childhood, I had known Benton as an epic muralist, prominent in downtown banks and department stores, but his World War II propaganda, representations of the American West, and commercial work for Hollywood were all new to me.

At the press opening, when I’m usually thinking about what intellectual connections I can create to make the faraway and/or long ago nearer and clearer, I was drawn instead to the social connections that might be possible, bringing together in the faraway, communities once known to me by their nearness.

I also have a special affinity for extending invitations, seeing in that vulnerable act of generosity the seed of creation, and in the acceptance of said invitation the assumption of the risk imperative to its possibility.

So, after the press opening, instead of typing up notes and thinking deep thoughts in anticipation of writing a “review,” I took steps towards planning an “event:” Benton and Missourians in Salem.

Thomas Hart Benton New England Editor, 1946 Oil and tempera on gessoed panel 30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection— Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456 Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
New England Editor, 1946
Oil and tempera on gessoed panel
30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—
Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456
Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Myth-making is a central theme of the show, with multiple explorations of stories we create for ourselves about where we come from and where we’re going. Epics are, after all, about journeys, expanding one’s home turf, interacting with the other. There’s risk, and possibility, and attempts to make sense of difference. 

I see this active myth-making most acutely in the propaganda work, where caricatures of Japanese and African Americans eschew any beauty or humanity, focusing instead on dangerous threats of an unknown outside.

When confronted with the otherness of the landscape of the American West, however, Benton seems to exaggerate the beauty of its foreignness; opportunity outweighing threat.

Thomas Hart Benton Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967 Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel 30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm) Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967
Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel
30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And Hollywood? Other than Delphi and its oracle, has there been a more successful mythmaker in the history humankind?

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” says Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas: the illusion of three-dimensional space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.”

Thomas Hart Benton Hollywood, 1937–38 Oil on canvas 56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N
Thomas Hart Benton
Hollywood, 1937–38
Oil on canvas
56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

I too had grand dreams for my “event,” harnessing the movement of people across a land, capturing affinities of nearness in the land of the other.

And yet despite extending far-reaching invitations, I fear, in the end, fear won. We were a mere handful of classmates and cousins, risking little more than sharing a morning filled with beauty and opportunity.

Perhaps when “American Epics” opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on October 10 some of you based there will extend an invitation to an-other to explore a beautiful epic?

Thomas Hart Benton The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28 From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28 Oil on canvas 60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28
From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28
Oil on canvas
60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
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