Right now the Nelson-Atkins is host to some pure movie magic. “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” is a retrospective on the painter and muralist’s brief stint among the glittery excess of the early 1900s film industry.
Most would think the Bloch building is the exact opposite of Benton’s aesthetic. With most of his most prolific works housed and installed in small town courthouses and universities, it would seem too strange of an environment for the lush and passionate historical works of a politician’s son from Neosho. However, the venue works. Visitors walk along a red carpet into a large low-lit room with only three paintings in it. “Self-portrait with Rita” (1924) is the first and most striking, facing the visitor directly as they enter.
The painting depicts Benton and his wife Rita, whom he stayed with until his death in 1974. The scene shows the two of them at a table on the beach, Rita sitting with Benton next to her, Benton standing and staring right at the viewer. It’s a strange image compositionally, a look of intimacy and energy between the two taking priority over perspective. Benton stands in the direct optical center of the painting like a column. This is Thomas Hart Benton, the colossus of the Midwest.
It’s after turning the corner that the exhibition leads into an enormous room, sparsely decorated save for what could be considered a masterwork of Benton’s, “American Historical Epic.” The collection of 14 paintings is a swooping, shifting masterpiece, depicting scenes from the origins of America. While not every panel of the full piece is an original (three are reproductions as the originals are in private hands), seeing the complete work in person is a rare and breathtaking experience.
Scenes from the panels include “The Witch,” a painting that depicts a young woman in white being tried for witchcraft. The crowd of onlookers sways with sorrow and anger as a loathsome guillotine looms as tall as the doomed young woman on the left part of the composition.
Another work is “The Lost Hunting Ground,” which shows a weary and bewildered Native American leaning on a tree as he looks on to see pioneers tearing down trees and tilling the land that once belonged to his people. Here Benton depicts progress at the cost of things that wouldn’t grow to be understood until it was too late.
Coming from the large empty room, visitors will walk into a bustling busy exhibition showing Benton’s work alongside the shifts in technology, film and images of the approaching World War I. The color scheme is suddenly bright and vibrant, with rooms painted yellow and red. Some pieces are shown in rooms that are made to resemble living rooms in the 1950s. Television sets with screens as small as an iPad and chairs to sit in surround a Benton original hanging overhead. It’s in this section that viewers see more than the man on the beach – they see a man who was creating an image of America. The most prolific and powerful part of this section is a room featuring a projector that plays a scene from John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The scene shows the family right as they begin to depart from their home and begin their journey west to California during America’s dust bowl era. As the mother looks on and muses about the present state of her family and what they have lost, she says, “But we’re going to California right? Well then let’s go to California.” Benton did the art direction for the film and inspired many of the large clouded landscapes accentuating the open skies of the American Southwest, but it’s more than that. Steinbeck wrote characters pushed in a corner where they had no choice but to move forward which completely mirrored Benton’s subject matter.
There are certain truths in the Midwest – maybe that’s why people say everyone is nice here. Beyond an inclination to slather meat in sauce and paint wooden cows and leave them on street corners, a truth which will always exist in this place is that Thomas Hart Benton was one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. Not in the way that Andy Warhol is the darling of Pittsburg, however. It’s more personal than that. Benton never painted the present, only the past and future. Like Mark Twain, he never truly left the Midwest and for that the Midwest has never left him. He’s forever the politician’s son who went off to Hollywood as a painter and ended up creating waves that would continue through the century. There’s a reason you won’t find a Benton painting on a shirt at Urban Outfitters – it’s because unlike Warhol, he always came back home.
“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” is open until January 3rd.