Just a Few Weeks Left to Catch Thomas Hart Benton in Salem

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood
Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Through September 7, 2015

Planning a trip to Salem, Massachusetts? Don't wait until October when you have to share the streets with every 14-year-old self-styled Goth queen in New England. Go now before the fabulous "Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood" exhibit closes at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).

Part of the fun of this exhibit is trying to unravel the enigmatic Benton (1889-1975). He's often clumped with regionalists such as Grant Wood, though he was far less sentimental; or with WPA muralists, though he was producing large-scale public art a decade before the Great Depression hit and painters became government employees. He was the offspring of conservatives—his grandfather was a US Senator who advocated Manifest Destiny, and his father a Confederate during the Civil War and a racist and imperialist thereafter—but Thomas flirted with socialism in his youth and he routinely painted Native Americans and African Americans in a sympathetic light. If he owed an artistic debt to anyone, it was probably late Renaissance Mannerists, especially Tintoretto, whose acidic colors made up so much of Benton's palette. He was also familiar with modernism, which he admired and disdained in equal measure, yet he donned his instructor's cap and turned out a famed pupil: Jackson Pollock!

On the surface, Benton was a mythmaker who did on canvas what John Ford did on the big screen. The similarities don't end there—both men also exposed the darkness lurking behind elegiac surfaces. The first room of the PEM exhibit is devoted the "American Epic" series Benton painted in the 1920s, a giant rendering of the American saga from European discovery through the taming of the frontier. The scale alone suggests triumphant grandeur, but again the take is more John Ford than Walt Disney. Indians sometimes appear as menacing, but just as often they are victims, and the overall portrait of his grandfather's Manifest Destiny ideals is that of progress bloodied by violence, and of enterprise mediated by chicanery..

PEM cleverly displays these panels in an open room with theater chairs that invite you to view them as one might a film. Also like a film, Benton forces viewers to suspend belief. His figures are not just huge, they are rubbery and misshapen—arms that hang well below the knees, bent backs that suggest bonelessness, and featureless faces on the perpetrators of violence. His odd perspectives are everywhere, including the fact that one soon realizes that he often paints everyone as if they were nude. 

Look at the ankles of the Native in the next picture. He seems to be wearing leggings, but where do they end? We see other figures whose buttocks, chests, and muscles are so pronounced that they appear clad only in body paint.

Illusion—the essence of Hollywood. Benton loved movies and the movies loved him. I knew nothing of this connection before seeing the PEM exhibit, but it was a fruitful one, which Benton clearly enjoyed—right down to the act of painting himself and his wife in rakish poses suggestive of publicity stills. In Hollywood, Benton produced sketches used by directors to block scenes, made 3-D clay mock-ups for set designers, painted backdrops, and even made the marquee posters for classics such as of The Grapes of Wrath. His journals noted the frenetic energy of movie sets and expressed bafflement over why certain things were done. But about those illusions, check out the next painting-- of a Hollywood set. Benton frames the scantily clad actress with an arch, a looming camera boom, and all manner of strong verticals and horizontals. Despite all the activity behind and around her, the gaze is drawn salaciously toward her nearly nude body—so much so that we almost miss Benton's joke: a bare-breasted woman sitting at the bottom to the canvas casually adjusting her hair. Make the audience see what you want them to see—no wonder Hollywood called Benton to its bosom—as it were.  

By the time World War II rolled around, Benton was inspired by popular culture, especially film, comic books, posters. He played his part in pumping out propaganda, but compare his images of  black soldiers to sterile government images in which boxer Joe Louis appears in we-must-all-do-our-part guises. And look at this image of a young man peering back before he ships out—it's lifted from a World War One silent film. Indeed, his most famous war image, "Sowers" is an update of World War One propaganda posters associated with what was commonly called "the rape of Belgium." 

The Benton exhibit is excellently curated and full of small revelations. And how often does one get to use "small" and "Benton" in the same sentence? Hurry! Don't miss this exhibit.
Rob Weir

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