Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Bigger Picture

“You can't change your mind up on a scaffold without the risk of everything going awry.
 You must solve your problems before you get up there.”
Thomas Hart Benton

For the American mural painter Thomas Hart Benton the pre-planning required for his large scale works must be decided upon before the brush is applied to the wall.

As he explained to the Harry S. Truman Library’s Milton F. Perry “There is a difference between murals and other paintings. Generally a mural is much larger and its theme likely to be more complicated as to subject matter. This causes equally complicated designing problems--getting the subject matter together, I mean. You can't generally grasp a mural all at once. You may be able to see it at once but you are likely to explore it by walking about before it. A mural must be designed therefore so that the eye of the spectator can follow its lines and forms from part to part. It must have a logical design which the moving eye of the spectator is constrained to follow.”

Growing up in a political family, his father was a four time member of the US Congress and his great uncle, after whom he was named, one of the first two United States Senators elected from Missouri, it is little wonder that Benton had an ingrained interest in the broad sweep of the American nation in the first half of the 20th Century. Rejecting the political career he was groomed for Benton elected to attend the Art Institute of Chicago which he followed with stint in Paris.

During World War I Benton was a camoufleur for the US Navy making realistic drawings and illustrations of the camouflage schemes applied to US ships and renderings of shipyard work and life in general. Upon leaving the Navy he embarked on his career as muralist.

As he has said “When I came out of the Navy after the First World War, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to be just a studio painter, a pattern maker in the fashion then dominating the art world--as it still does. I began to think of returning to the painting of subjects, subjects with meanings, which people in general might be interested in. This led to an idea of painting a history of the United States on mural size canvasses. I started this project in 1919 and exhibited the results, year by year, at the Architectural League in New York, I became known as the mural painter without walls because I couldn't get any commissions from the architects. However in 1930 I did get a wall at the New School for Social Research in New York. I was commissioned to paint a mural there on "Contemporary America".

Now titled America Today it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and for which Benton was paid for his materials only. Other commissions followed for which he was paid. Like his Independence and the Opening of the West" for the Harry S. Truman Library in 1961 for which he was paid $60,000.

Benton walked his own path and had little time for the Art World in general and the East Coast taste makers in particular about whom he is reported to have said “I think that the intellectual world of New York is even worse than the Congress of the United States, if you’re dealing with ideas.”

About his own work The Smithsonian Magazine’s Paul Theroux reports Benton as saying “If it’s not art, it’s at least history.”

The exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is on show at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum until the 7th of September.

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