Thomas Hart Benton images and biography

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Thomas Hart Benton


"The top dog of Regionalism was, of course, Thomas Hart Benton. No American artist until Andy Warhol understood the art of publicity better: a cantankerous loudmouth brimful of vitality, Benton had an unerring eye for the jugular of the media. He was a dreadful artist most of the time. His work was genuinely popular, in part because of his ability to attract controversy, but mainly because it was bad in the way that popular art can sometimes be: not vulgar in the tasteful, closeted, Puritan-wistful way of an Andrew Wyeth, but "life-enhancing." It was flat-out, lapel-grabbing vulgar, unable to touch a pictorial sensation without pumping it up.

"And yet Benton's is a curious case, because despite the energies he invested in attacking modernism as decadent, he actually began as a modernist painter. Born in Neosho, Missouri, to a political family - his father was a U.S. congressman and his grand-uncle a senator - he studied painting at the Chicago Art Institute and in 1908 left for Paris, where he spent three years. There he fell under the spell, first of Cezanne, and then of the American expatriate painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Back in New York, he struck up a peripheral relationship with Stieglitz's circle of modernists, though he was never invited to show at 291 and would later bitterly denounce Stieglitz himself as "no intellectual [and] thoroughly ignorant." Since Benton destroyed most of the abstract paintings that he did in imitation of MacDonald-Wright's Synchromism - "to get," he said, "all that modernist dirt out of my system" - they are hard to assess, but the survivors, like Bubbles, 1914-17, leave the impression of an artist doing illustrations of abstraction rather than abstraction itself - a pastiche of MacDonald-Wright's own versions of Robert Delaunay's disks. However, the basic attraction of MacDonald-Wright's work was the hidden figure it often contained - usually a version of a design or sculpture by Michelangelo. What captured Benton's interest, he later wrote, was the Synchromists' use of Baroque rhythms, derived not from Cezanne's work, as was the case with most of the Parisian painters who had experimented with such rhythms, but from the more basic source of Michelangelo's sculpture.

"Benton rarely painted without a sculptural basis. Some early Constructivist abstractions he painted in New York around 1917-18 were based on paper, wire, and wood constructions in the round. Thereafter, while rejecting abstraction, Benton would stress the abstract basis of his compositions, often too much. The scheme of his bulging figures - usually worked out in advance through three-dimensional clay models - was based on the linea serpentinata, the twisting line, of sixteenth-century Mannerism. From Michelangelo, and from other Mannerist sources like Luca Camblaso's block figures and El Greco's posturing saints, Benton assembled a kind of "kinetic" composition in which nothing is at rest, everything strains and heaves against everything else. This incessant surge and flow would have large effects on his pupil, Jackson Pollock, but in Benton's own paintings it mainly produced rhetoric. His ideas about "bulge and hollow," the rhythmical distortion of bone and muscular structure, made his human figures look strangely overdetermined, like lanky dummies with cartoon faces. Benton's trains lean forward like Walt Disney's as they steam along; the very clouds in his landscapes flex their biceps.

"There is a certain irony in the fact that Regionalism, which was promoted as the very expression of American democracy, was the kissing cousin of both the official art of 1930s Russia and that of 1930s Germany. If both Stalinist and National Socialist Realism meant images of rural production, green acres, new tractors, straw-haired children, and sinewy farmers breaking the sod of the homeland, so did the Populist/Capitalist Realism set forth by Benton and other Regionalists. All were arts of idealization and propaganda. In esthetic terms, little that Benton painted in the 1930s (or after) would have seemed out of place in the Moscow subway.

"When Benton saw himself on the cover of Time at the end of 1934, he realized that he was truly famous. And to clinch his celebrity, he decided to punish New York for not having appreciated him enough. He would leave, and with the loudest possible hullabaloo. It took the form of an attack on the New York scene as a conspiracy of homosexuals. There had been, he wrote in in 1935, a "concentrated flow of aesthetic-minded homosexuals into the various fields of artistic practice." Limp but implacable wrists were everywhere, and they ran everything:

Far be it from me to raise my hands in any moral horror over the ways and taste of individuals... But it is not all right when, by ingratiation or subtle connivance, precious fairies get into positions of power and judge, buy, and exhibit American pictures on a base of nervous whim and under the sway of those overdelicate refinements of taste characteristic of their kind.
"None of this could happen in the Midwest, whose citizens were "highly intolerant of aberration," subjecting the devious queer to "the scrutiny of strong prejudice." So back to Kansas the Michelangelo of Neosho would go, shaking the dust of Sodom from his feet. New York had had it, anyway: the big cities were dead. Only in the heartland could a real and virile American culture arise. And so on, and so forth.

"In fact, Benton was not to find the paradise of absolute heterosexuality that he had hoped for in the Midwest. Kansas City's newly founded Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art had just hired as its first director one Paul Gardner, a former dancer in Anna Pavlova's corps de ballet, who loathed Regionalist painting. Perhaps there were as many fairies per capita in Kansas as anywhere else. Was he, like Dorothy, not in Kansas anymore? But he was to turn from such somber reflections to an enormous mural commission, which he began in 1935. It is only one of his mural projects that survives undamaged in its original place.

"This was the decoration of the House Lounge in the state capitol of Missouri, in Jefferson City. Its theme was the social history of the state, from pioneer times to the present, the whole narrative spreading across four large walls and linked by the image of the Missouri River winding down through space and time. On getting the commission, he went at it with his usual thoroughness, reading voraciously about Missouri history, making innumerable sketches, building a clay model with relief figures twenty inches high and fifteen feet long, having it photographed and then checking the progress of the painting against the photos.

"Nowhere else can you get a better sense of the man: his enormous rhetorical energy and equally enormous vulgarity, his worship of the late Renaissance and his cornball humor, his self-confidence and the anxiety that's written all over these huge posturing figures in their buckling space. Once Benton was done, this was no longer a lounge; as one aggrieved legislator complained, you couldn't settie down to a quiet game of cards with Jesse James about to jump off the wall onto your back. The Renaissance fresco the work most resembles - though this can only have been an accident - is Giulio Romano's room with The Fall of the Giants in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua; Benton's figures induce the same feeling of ill ease, through their instability. Some Missourians objected to its images, such as a homestead wife wiping her baby's butt with a pad of wool - not the right thing for the high deliberations of government. But they liked his vernacular and the big cast of characters: Huck Finn and his black friend Jim, Davy Crockett, and even Frankie shooting Johnny for doing her wrong. A curiosity of this passage is that Frankie is firing her .44 right up Johnny's backside, as he sprawls in terror over the barroom table. Perhaps only a man who hated gays with Benton's consuming and pathological intensity could have produced such a remarkable image of anal rape, without knowing it.

"The color of the murals is tawdrily emphatic, as Benton's usually was, and they show no sense of surface - paint is dry stuff for conveying the message. The rhythmical distortion of bone and muscular structure, transcribed from the clay model, makes his human figures weirdly overdeveloped. Here, in a parody of Michelangelo and El Greco, are the twisting, bulging, overstressed forms of his mature work, mannerisms which would so influence his pupil, Jackson Pollock."

- From Robert Hughes, American Visions

Further reading on Thomas Hart Benton:

  Thomas Hart Benton Images

The Ballad of the Jealous Lover
The Hailstorm

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