Saturday, June 3, 2017
The Art Of Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton (self-portrait)
Thomas Hart Benton was an American painter. He was born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, and died on January 19th, 1975, in New York City. He was born into a family of prominent politicians committed to political republicanism and populism. His father was a congressman, and his great-uncle, for whom he was named, was an important US senator. Benton later recalled that, "Politics was the core of our family life." Through his art, in particular his murals, Benton sought to continue his family's support of nineteenth-century political republicanism, upholding the producers of society, and scornful of big business and big banks. Expected to follow his family's well-trodden path, instead, with his mother's encouragement he chose to study art. Starting at age seventeen he worked as a cartoonist for a local paper. Escaping the confines of small town life and rebelling against the stifling expectations of his family, Benton moved to Chicago where he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1907, studying under Frederick Oswald.
After two years at the Art Institute, in 1909, he chose the familiar path traveled by numerous other American artists and relocated to Paris to study at the famed Academie Julian. While in Paris, he became acquainted with the great Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and also, was greatly inspired by the American painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the founder of Synchromism. Benton settled in New York City upon his return in 1913, the same year as the famed Armory Show. In the 1910s, he experimented with several modern styles including Synchromism, which stressed the musical qualities of color. He was greatly influenced by the compositional strategies of Cezanne. A fire that broke out in his studio destroyed much of his early experimentations and work.
During World War I, Benton was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as an architectural draftsman and painted camouflage for the Navy. In his free time he read American history and sketched local scenes of shipyard life. The Navy's requirement for artistic realism and documentation strongly impacted on his later style. Up until this time he had struggled to find an artistic identity. It was his turn to depictions of everyday life of American and its people in a representational style that announced Benton's emergence as a mature artist. Because of his interest in American history and his family's deep roots in Missouri, Benton soon chose the American Historical Epic as a theme; his elongated figuration showing the influence of El Greco.
Upon his return to New York in the early 1920s, he unabashedly announced himself to be an "enemy of modernism," while simultaneously incorporating modernist aesthetics into his work. Like many artists during the 1920s and 30s, Benton was involved with the political left and leftist artists' groups such as the John Reed Club. His early work as a muralist capitulated Benton into the public eye. In 1930, New York's famed New School of Social Research commissioned Benton to paint a suite of murals entitled "American Today"; these now hang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton was heralded as one of the leaders of the Regionalist movement. The Regionalists were championed by Thomas Craven, a nativist and rabid anti-Semite, whose own bigoted views worked against the Regionalists. Despite his popularity, some critics downplayed Benton's artistic talents, disapproving of his allegedly provincial aesthetics and subject matter and his unabashed rejection of abstraction.
Benton was one of the first American artists to combine modern aesthetic principles with long held academic constructs. Working as a Regionalist, he embraced the Midwest and its people as currency for his art work. His mural commissions predate the start of the New Deal Arts Program, and so, were influential to nascent muralists who likewise looked to the American scene and its people. Benton never worked for the federal projects thanks to his many mural commissions, and for his numerous illustrations for industry, publishing, and advertisements.
Often Benton is reduced to the role of "merely" being Jackson Pollock's teacher and the shift between them explained as generational progress. However, while Pollock claimed in his Oedipal battle with Benton that the elder artist served just as a force to rebel against, Pollock's own works show compositional similarities with those by Benton. Benton's characteristic machismo and hard-drinking was echoed later by Pollock, and several other male artists in the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. We would be hard-pressed to suggest a direct lineage of artists who followed in Benton's steps. Instead, we can consider Benton as having validated and encouraged the art of realism and representation.
Thomas Hart Benton was one of America's most popular and heavily patronized modern artists during the decades leading up to World War II, and his murals were especially acclaimed. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, Benton gained artistic fame as a Regionalist painter, depicting the people and culture of the American Midwest, in particular his native state of Missouri. While his subjects were primarily based in America's heartland, he lived in New York City for twenty years. Considered by many to be reactionary due to his outspoken and inflammatory diatribes against the art world, Benton, a populist, did in fact boldly use his art to protest the KKK, lynching, and fascism during the 1930s and 1940s. Benton was also an admired teacher at New York's Art Students League, offering students grounding in European art history, as well as an awareness of European modernism. The advent of Abstract Expressionism has all but eclipsed Benton's importance in the history of modern art.
Benton's main contribution to twentieth-century American art might be his thematic emphasis on images of ordinary people and common lore. His expressive realism stands out for its exaggerated curvilinear forms and shapes, and bold use of key colors. By shifting attention away from New York and towards the Midwest, Benton expanded both the scope of possible artistic subject matter, and the potential public for American art.
In his paintings and prints, Benton was devoted to the evocations of sound and music as a method of communication. His interest in sound, often vernacular songs and instruments, as well as stump-speeches and dialogue, can be seen as relating back to his family's history in Missouri politics, where one often spoke of the voice of the people; Benton sought to keep this popular voice alive in his artwork. The artist, a self-taught and often performing harmonica player, was also a collector, cataloguer, transcriber, and distributor of popular music.
By the mid-1940s, Benton became infamous for his outlandish claims against art critics and museums, at one point going on a homophobic rant. With his strong ego and stubbornness, Benton became a rather isolated persona-non-grata, even amongst his own field.
Jackson Pollock was Benton's most ardent follower in the 1930s and his early work bears a strong similarity to that of his teacher in terms of style and subject matter. Rather than a complete break from Benton, Pollock's move towards pure abstraction is best seen as an aesthetic shift. The shift from Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism can also be read in relation to a broader cultural and political shift from New Deal reformist politics, to the Cold War post-atomic age.
Paintings by Thomas Hart Benton