Thomas Hart Benton’s Hollywood Close-Up
Missouri’s homegrown artist gets a closer look as the Martin Scorsese of the painted mural in a new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum
Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings were made for the movies. They are epic dramas played out on a grand scale with muscular heroic figures, hapless victims, bit-part players and corrupt villains, all working, moving and striving. The setting is equally cinematic, whether rolling farmlands, industrialized coal mines or an urban city teeming with skyscrapers. And Benton’s large-scale, made-for-an-IMAX-movie-screen canvases literally seem to move like a movie narrative — unfolding and even undulating with their rollicking composition and rhythms.
Benton is often cited as a premier regionalist and chronicler of a vernacular America of sharecroppers and snake oil preachers, bootleggers and burlesque dancers, homesteaders, Native Americans, and pioneers that was rapidly being replaced by a new industrial society of factories, automobiles, locomotives and yes, big-time Hollywood movie productions. These were scenes he often witnessed in person, traveling across the U.S. by foot, car and train.
The Nelson-Atkins’ exhibition provides a fascinating new lens — the movies — through which to view this cantankerous artist who doesn’t fit neatly into genres. He is neither a classicist, nor did he partake of the hot new art movement of his time, abstract expressionism (though he did mentor a young Jackson Pollock). Entitled American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, this is the first major exhibition of Benton’s works in more than 25 years. The exhibit includes nearly 100 works by the Missouri artist, as well as drawings, prints and influential film clips. The show emphasizes Benton’s early years constructing sets for silent films and, later, returning to document the Hollywood “talkies” for Life magazine in 1937. Along the way, Benton was commissioned by Hollywood to paint scenes from various movies such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) directed by John Ford and The Kentuckian (1955) starring Burt Lancaster.
Benton painted the mural “Hollywood” (1937-1938) at Life magazine’s request. It showcases the backstage machinery and smoke and mirrors behind the glorious illusions created by the film industry. The painting represents Benton’s mixed attitude of awe and critique of the dream factory and is a centerpiece of this exhibition. In the informative and lavishly illustrated book accompanying the exhibit, it claims that the experience of Hollywood led Benton to develop “a memorable, cinematic style of painting, blurring fact and fiction, mythic and modern.” In addition, the book explains that Benton chose epic, movie-worthy themes for his murals such as “cultural identity, westward expansion, prejudice and tolerance, and the larger-than-life American Dream.” These grand themes were conveyed as if with the panoramic eye of the all-seeing movie camera and its new widescreen technique of CinemaScope. Lastly, Benton blocked out his scenes into multiple narratives and organized his wide cast of characters like a movie director. Before he painted his figures, he modeled them in clay and set them in miniature dioramas to study their 3-D nature and the effects of light and shadow, like a master cinematographer.
Whether or not you are a fan of Benton’s virtuoso, bold narratives and boneless, Gumby-like figures, you can certainly appreciate the epic sweep and ambitious showmanship of his murals. Like a dazzling Hollywood production, they are almost always entertaining and a marvel to behold.
“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” will be on show Oct. 10, 2015 to Jan. 3, 2016 as a ticketed exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibit was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in collaboration with the Nelson and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. For more info visit nelson-atkins.org.