Joe and Michele Boeckholt spent Saturday morning putting finishing touches on an exhibit that is going to surprise many about famed artist Thomas Hart Benton.
Benton, who died in 1975, served a largely unheralded stint in the U.S. Navy during World War I. He briefly shoveled coal but was soon producing sketches of camouflaged ships at a Navy base in Virginia.
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Two of those sketches were recently discovered in the National Archives, and copies of them are part of the exhibit that opened Saturday at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.
“It puts him in a definitely different light,” said Joe Boeckholt. He and his wife are members of Friends of the Benton Home, a state historic site in Kansas City.
The exhibit is not large — wrapped around a single large column — but enough to get a taste of Benton’s Navy career and the work he did.
Camouflaging ships gained traction during World War I as a way to make them more difficult for the enemy to detect. Pioneered by the British, geometric shapes and sometimes even bold colors were used to break up the look of the ship’s form. The British called it “Dazzle.” In American hands, that became “Razzle Dazzle,” the name of the exhibit.
The discovered sketches, included in Benton’s reports on two British ships anchored off Hampton Roads, Va., are the exhibit’s centerpiece.
“Black. #3 Blue. #2 Gray and Gray White,” he states in one of his reports describing a ship’s colors along with a sketch in those colors of the SS Alban.
Benton was 29 when he served in the Navy, and the exhibit provides some insight into how it affected his art. The Boeckholts wonder if being away from the New York art scene and among sailors may have seeded his turn from abstract art to paintings of American scenes and working people. Perhaps seeing large ships painted in various colors was an inspiration for the large murals he would later paint.
Such thoughts are not wild speculation. Benton, when asked two years before his death if his art was affected by his Navy experience, said, “It certainly was. I worked a good part of my time as a draftsman, and that had a lot to do with my return to representational art. But what was equally important about this period was that I began reading American history again.”
Razzle Dazzle is one of several area exhibits and events this year around the 125th anniversary of Benton’s birth. The exhibition, a collaboration between the World War I Museum and the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, runs through Oct. 12. It is included in the museum’s admission.