SALEM, MASS.- The Peabody Essex Museum
presents the first major traveling exhibition about American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) in more than 25 years. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood explores how the motion picture industry influenced and ignited Benton's creative imagination. Melding Old Master European painting traditions with Hollywood's cinematic and production techniques, Benton reinvented 20th-century American narratives and captivated the public with his signature brand of visual storytelling. As lead organizer of American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, PEM hosts the exhibition from June 6 through September 7, 2015. The exhibition then travels to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, PEM's collaborating partners on the exhibition. The Milwaukee Art Museum serves as final venue for the national tour.
This major reevaluation of Benton's art -- the first since 1989 -- gathers more than 100 works, including the artist's paintings, murals, drawings, prints and illustrated books. The exhibition pairs curated clips from Hollywood movies with Benton's art from the 1920s through the 1960s to take visitors on a journey through America's myths and into its national character.
Benton wanted to become the major American artist of his time. He trained in Chicago and Paris and was a member of New York's artistic vanguard, but by his mid-20s, Benton had yet to make the kind of defining contribution to the art history of the United States that his ancestors, U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton and John Charles Fremont, had made to the nation's political history. Casting about for work and opportunities, Benton became a set painter on silent film productions in Fort Lee, New Jersey - the nation's "first Hollywood."
"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." To achieve this, Benton adopted techniques used by 16th-century Italian painters to sculpt and illuminate clay models before sketching the forms to work up a final painting. Early filmmakers also adopted these Old Master techniques to study scene composition. Benton's meticulous artistic process parallels the storyboard-to-final-take methods developed by the film industry.
Benton became acutely aware of the motion picture industry's rising influence and mass appeal. Themes of cultural identity, westward expansion, prejudice, tolerance and the American Dream were given epic treatment on movie screens, and Benton sought to paint them. Like the movies, murals are a form of public art, so Benton embarked on a self-commissioned, independently produced mural series, American Historical Epic. This sweeping series painted between 1920 and 1928 runs to more than 60 feet in length and appears in the exhibition. Benton selected episodes from American history familiar from 1920s silent films, but he depicted the nation's past in unconventional ways to engage the hot-button issues of the day: citizenship, race relations and national identity. As Benton explained, "history was not a scholarly study for me but a drama." Simultaneously, Benton started traveling regularly around the country in search of distinctly American subject matter. Like Hollywood, he recognized typecasting as a way to transform individuals into a cast of American characters and personalities, among them Yankees, bootleggers, musicians and cotton pickers. Inspired by his characterizations, 20th Century Fox commissioned Benton to create a series of lithographs in 1940 to promote John Ford's filmed adaptation of John Steinbeck's best selling novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Benton's celebrated mural cycles such as America Today (1930-31, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) defined him as a public artist and made him famous. His self-portrait appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1934. In 1937 he published his autobiography, An Artist in America, and LIFE magazine sent him to Hollywood on assignment to portray the industry at the height of its Golden Age -- when two-thirds of Americans went to the movies every week. The artist made it clear that he was interested not in celebrity culture, but in the stories being told on the big screen and how they were produced behind the scenes. Of his time in California, Benton wrote: "I am not a Hollywood news column fan, and I have not read any books about the place. I know it only through the direct experiences of an artist interested in making pictures of America and American things."
A CAST OF HEROES AND HEROINES
Benton believed that ordinary people played just as vital a role in the making of history and myth as historical figures, or movie stars. With exacting detail and immersive scale, his 1937-38 painting Hollywood captures the realities of a bustling film set: a scantily clad actress stands goddess-like in the center as workers scurry around her operating booms, lights and hydraulic lifts. During his month-long assignment in Hollywood, Benton used more than 400 graphite sketches to create 40 finished ink-and-wash drawings. The exhibition includes more than a dozen of these revealing images, which closely describe the culture, mechanics and politics of the film industry.
When America was drawn into World War II, Benton rapidly produced Year of Peril, a mural series intended to issue a "wake-up call" to his fellow countrymen and women. "War Art Creates Sensation" is the title of the 1942 Paramount Newsreel featuring Benton and these propaganda paintings. Informed both by Hollywood motifs and the artist's personal memories of seeing soldiers departing for war, Benton painted Shipping Out in 1942. The composition recalls the final scene of the acclaimed anti-war movie from 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front, when each soldier turns to lock eyes with the viewer and bid a final farewell.
In the 1950s and 60s, Benton revisited the American West and began painting landscapes of the Great Plains, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. This "grand scenery," as Benton called it, inspired him to explore the visual vocabulary of Hollywood Westerns and to think of his palette as akin to the bold tones and rich saturation of Technicolor. Benton's final Hollywood commission was a 1954 promotional painting for The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster as "Big Eli" and Donald MacDonald as "Little Eli." Accompanied by their faithful hound, the characters are shown mid-quest as they head westward to establish a new life outside civilized society. The distant undulating landscape of the West beckons the travelers to this mythic realm, where blue skies, freedom and a new beginning await.