Thomas Hart Benton, through the course of his long life and remarkable career, invited all kinds of labels: original, derivative, populist, liberal, conservative, epic, provincial, superficial, cartoonish.
The written legacy of the Missouri native who once headed the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute leaves no doubt that he was homophobic. And his paintings reveal images of ethnic minorities that are, by turns, romantic, sympathetic and demeaning. Yet, his best work exerts a power that won’t be denied.
Above all else, he was an artist who forged his own path. He did it his way, committing to a distinctive style of narrative painting and rejecting abstraction favored by his contemporaries — including his most famous student, Jackson Pollock. To some he was a glorified illustrator. To others he was a uniquely gifted storyteller who created a unique vision of America.
“Cinematic” has been used to describe the effects Benton achieved in his life-size paintings and epic murals. The influence of visual narrative refined by the movies on Benton’s work is the explicit focus of “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” a traveling exhibition of almost 100 Benton works opening this week at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It is the first major Benton retrospective in more than 25 years.
One of Benton’s earliest jobs was painting silent movie sets in New Jersey. Later Benton created art works that were used to help promote two John Ford films in the 1940s — “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Long Voyage Home” — and in 1955 he created a life-size painting that was used as the poster art for Burt Lancaster’s frontier movie, “The Kentuckian.” The painting for the Lancaster film is included in the exhibit as well as a number of preliminary sketches.
“American Epics” was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., with the Nelson-Atkins and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. The Nelson-Atkins is a vital partner in the exhibition for two simple reasons: it owns more Benton originals than any other institution, and its collection includes the show’s centerpiece: “Hollywood,” the epic behind-the-scenes painting Benton created after visiting the movie capital on a commission from Life magazine in the late 1930s.
“Something else the Nelson-Atkins is bringing to it is conservation expertise,” said Nelson curator Stephanie Knappe. “Because we have the largest public holdings of Benton’s art, our conservators are very well versed in the eccentricities of the way Benton laid paint on canvas. So our paintings conservator, Mary Schafer, will be traveling with the exhibition to every venue, examining the pieces, making sure they’re OK as they get off a truck and get put on the walls and get packed back up again.”
The exhibition was on view through the summer in Salem. After the Kansas City show closes on Jan. 3, it continues on to Fort Worth and then goes to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Knappe said the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unveiling last year of “America Today,” a 10-panel mural Benton created for the New School of Social Research showing life in the 1920s, should only whet the public’s appetite for the work included in “American Epics.”
“It’s had a long gestation but the timing couldn’t be better with the MET and their big gift of the ‘America Today’ murals and their focus on Benton from last fall through this spring,” she said. “Benton’s star is really rising, so I think we’re going to benefit from Benton being in lights on a national scale.”
Knappe said the exhibition will include a number of sketches, drawings, studies and other materials that have rarely, if ever, been seen in public.
The exhibit, in fact, includes a number of works gleaned from Benton’s notebooks, allowing viewers an opportunity to compare his small-scale drawings to the larger-than-life finished paintings.
“There a number of sketches,” Knappe said. “When Benton first went to Hollywood it was in August of 1937. Life was interested in doing a sort of visual story about Hollywood and they thought Benton would be the perfect fit. Benton gets there and instead of being interested in the stars and starlets — the glamorous Hollywood — he’s more interested in what you see in the Nelson-Atkins’ ‘Hollywood’ painting. He’s interested in what’s happening behind the scenes, the special effect, the wind machines, the lights, the camera, the people who are making this happen.”
Knappe said Benton filled up a sketchbook with more than 400 images — he called them “notes” — and later translated them into more formal ink drawings.
“And so we have a number of these Hollywood notes and sketches that really haven’t been seen in the public very often,” Knappe said. “So it’s wonderful for the people of Kansas City, who are so familiar with ‘Hollywood,’ to see the ingredients that make up this amazing picture.”
Reviewing the exhibition in Salem, Lance Epslund of the Wall Street Journal wrote that the show demonstrates that Benton’s relationship to Hollywood was “direct and profound. In his 14-panel mural series ‘American Historical Epic’ (1920-28), which explores and sermonizes about the persecution and plights of blacks, Native Americans and even ‘witches,’ Benton borrows heavily from socially charged films such as ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1920) and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1927).”
Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe wrote that Benton admirably rebelled against the influence of photography and movies, which threatened to relegate painting to “oblivion.” He called the show “brilliant” as it “takes a long, penetrating look at how one American artist — perhaps the most openly ambitious of his generation — refused to retreat and instead grappled openly with the movies.”
Knappe said the show should be an informative look at Benton’s work, even for people who think they know what he was about.
“This isn’t the Benton that might be most familiar to folks in Kansas City,” Knappe said. “This isn’t Benton haystacks. This isn’t Benton of the heartland or rural labor. There’s a little bit of that here. But this is a fresh look at a familiar figure.”
Knappe said that critics and academics — a class to whom Benton freely expressed hostility — view Benton’s work differently than they once did.
“In the last 10 years and certainly in the last two or three years he’s being looked at in a different light,” she said. “His time has come again. He was an artist who once he found his style and knew what he wanted to say didn’t waver from it. He knew who he was. He wanted to explore America and American identities and American experiences in a particular style.”.
“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” opens Saturday and continues through Jan. 3, 2016, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Call 816-751-1278. Exhibit admission is $6-$12. Special events Saturday include “Epic Thomas Hart Benton,” a talk with the show’s chief curator, Austen Barron Bailly of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and conservator Mary Schafer of the Nelson-Atkins. For a complete schedule of talks, presentations and film screenings, visit nelson-atkins.org.