— A self-portrait depicts Thomas Hart Benton grasping a
staff, much like a
modern day Poseidon — only the artist’s staff turns out to
be the stem of a beach umbrella, and the reincarnation of the
god is apparently clad in swimming trunks.
painting reveals the
infrastructure of a motion picture studio,
including representation of
a marvel of technology at the time: the faux burning of
the Windy City for the 1938 Tyrone Power movie
“In Old Chicago.”
work of art, one I found particularly striking, is a
crucifixion scene. Typically, Christ’s body is affixed to a
wooden cross in Again.
But this propagandistic painting from the World II era shows
the body being strafed from a Nazi plane and lanced by Axis
soldiers. Blood flows along the vertical bar of the cross,
continuing down the hill of Calvary.
did not shy away from complicated and dark subjects,
Brandon Ruud, also the source of phrases quoted in the
first two paragraphs, said of Benton. Ruud, the Milwaukee Art
Museum’s Abert Family curator of American Art, added that
Benton himself was a messy, like all of us are, and
his remarks last week while conducting a press tour at the MAM
to mark the beginning of the local, and last, leg of the
national tour of “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and
Hollywood.” This first major Benton exhibition in over 25
years includes some 100 paintings, murals, prints, drawings
and illustrated books by the Missouri-born Regionalist
(1889-1975). The Benton
and Hollywood display
is running through Sept. 5 at the MAM, 700 N. Art Museum
Benton’s artwork in the exhibition are relevant motion
picture excerpts, shown on several screens, and still photos.
called Benton, the namesake of a U.S. senator and son of a
congressman, a difficult,
challenging personality who was also a great artist and a
taught art, as well as practiced it; his pre-eminent pupil was
the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who later claimed
he had to unlearn everything Benton taught him. (Benton was
considerably more charitable when recalling his former
student.) Hollywood denizen Dennis Hopper also studied under
however, was a relatively insignificant part of the
Regionalist’s Hollywood identification. In a MAM-issued
press release, Ruud spoke of the connection between
Benton’s cinema experience, from subject matter to
techniques, with his paintings
and contended that the artist’s
fusion of traditional painting and contemporary,
larger-than-life storytelling fueled by Hollywood is really
N.J., is considered the
nation’s original Hollywood,
Ruud told the tour group, an early 20th-century
predecessor to Tinseltown. There, Benton painted and designed
sets for silent movies in the 1910s. A generation later, by
which time the movie industry had become entrenched in
California, Benton — already regarded as
a great artist — was commissioned by Life magazine to
capture the cinema scene for an article.
He had a
very literal relationship with Hollywood,
Ruud recalled at the MAM. The artist also had a
complicated relationship with Hollywood,
a less than adulatory one. His bosses at Life thought
Benton’s efforts on the publication’s behalf
promoted a seamy underbelly of Hollywood,
Ruud said, and the article never saw publication.
became involved in additional film-related projects between
the late 1930s and early 1950s, resulting in several
significant works. The films included John Ford’s
“The Grapes of Wrath” and Burt Lancaster’s
A Benton rendition of the latter movie would be spoofed
years later on TV’s “The
also painted “Poker
Night,” a scene
from Tennessee Williams’
Streetcar Named Desire.”
Hollywood producer David O. Selznick commissioned
“Poker Night” as
a gift for his wife, who herself had produced the Williams
drama on Broadway in the late 1940s. The painting is part of
the Benton exhibition and Ruud pointed it out to the tourgoers,
mentioning an angry Stanley Kowalski, and sister-in-law
Blanche Dubois in a negligee
that leaves nothing to the imagination.
(In Irene Mayer Selznick’s production those
were played by Marlon Brando, who reprised Stanley in the 1951
movie, and Jessica Tandy.)
that Benton, artist of the American Historical Epic mural
series in the 1920s, was given to self-promotion and
wanted to be the painter of American life, of American
history, of American scenes.
That last category would include
Custer’s Last Stand,
an exhibit entry depicting an incident
reproduced in celluloid over and over again.
The curator added that Benton had
a long history of painting Western scenes.
painted African-American and Native American subjects when few
artists were doing so. His painting “Negro Soldier”
from the World War II era, which reflects, Ruud said,
the artist’s interest in military integration, is one
example. Yet, said Ruud, the gifted Regionalist could be
an outspoken bigot. Benton was fired from a teaching
position at the Kansas City Art Institute for making
derogatory remarks about gays, for example.
a cantankerous individual,
Ruud summarized in a Q-and-A session at tour’s end.
as the aforementioned news release states, Benton also was a
quintessential American artist.
And the artist will be saluted over the next 2 1/2
months at the MAM, through
a gallery filled with screen-worthy melodramas, war
sagas and western spectacles.