Hollywood-influenced Benton works  explore individuals’ epic qualities
Touring exhibit settles at Milwaukee Art Museum for summer

By: TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

June 16, 2016


MILWAUKEE — 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 Greek  sea  god is apparently clad in swimming trunks.

Another 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.” 

A third 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.

 He 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 complicated individual.

Ruud made 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 Drive.

Supplementing Benton’s artwork in the exhibition are relevant motion picture excerpts, shown on several screens, and still photos.

Ruud 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 controversial one. 

Benton 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 Benton.

Hopper, 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 extraordinary. 

Fort Lee, 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.

Benton 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  “The Kentuckian.”  A Benton rendition of the latter movie would be spoofed years later on TV’s  “The Simpsons. ”

Benton also painted  “Poker Night,”  a scene from Tennessee Williams’  play  “A 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 characters’  roles were played by Marlon Brando, who reprised Stanley in the 1951 movie, and Jessica Tandy.)

Ruud noted 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.

Benton 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.

Benton was a cantankerous individual,  Ruud summarized in a Q-and-A session at tour’s end.

However, 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.