Arts & Culture

Thomas Hart Benton exhibit brings Hollywood to Amon Carter Museum

American artist Thomas Hart Benton “developed a modern cinematic painting style” for paintings such as Hollywood, Amon Carter curator Austen Barron Bailly said.
American artist Thomas Hart Benton “developed a modern cinematic painting style” for paintings such as Hollywood, Amon Carter curator Austen Barron Bailly said. Star-Telegram

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” a sprawling and revelatory exhibition of works by that famous Missouri artist, which opened at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art on Saturday, is a marriage made in art lovers’ heaven.

“He was an artist who was deeply engaged in trying to find ways to tell America’s stories,” said lead curator Austen Barron Bailly, the George Putnam curator of American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., one of the two museums partnering with the Carter to create this exhibition (Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is the third).

“When he was embarking on his career, movies were becoming the dominant form of storytelling in America,” said Bailly.

With that concept in mind, Bailly and her team, including Carter assistant curator Maggie Adler, put together an exhibition featuring about 100 of Benton’s works, among them 30 paintings and murals, numerous drawings and lithographs, and several posters and book illustrations.

They also collected clips of films from Benton’s era that are seen on video screens scattered throughout the exhibition to establish context. This is the collection’s third of four stops.

Benton’s unique style, which is so thoroughly surveyed in this exhibition, seems a perfect match for Hollywood. His works are truly “motion pictures” captured in frames.

Benton’s limber, curving figures roll and undulate across his canvases, suggesting movement despite being trapped in a static, two-dimensional space. His subjects feel as free of the rigid tyranny of bones as the bits of light and shadow we call “movie stars” are free of the constraints of being human.

His use of captivating colors (his distinctive yellows, oranges and blues are particularly interesting) can rival any Technicolor film effort. And, perhaps most significantly, he knew how to tell a story with a pen or brush.

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” Bailly said. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas, the illusion of 3-D space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.”

That final comment about light in Benton’s works was reinforced for Adler when it came time for the exhibition’s pictures to be hung at the Carter.

When we put them up, it was fascinating to see that these paintings glow as if they are on the silver screen

Maggie Adler, Carter assistant curator

“We have restrictions on how brightly we can light paintings,” Adler said. “But when we put them up, it was fascinating to see that these paintings glow as if they are on the silver screen.

“We didn’t have to remotely approach our limits on lighting them.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first national touring exhibition devoted to Benton’s work in more than 25 years. More surprising still is that a recent survey of museum visitors found that only 1 in 4 had ever heard of Benton, Bailly said.

That seems amazing considering that Benton (1889-1975) was one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century (he was a teacher and mentor of Jackson Pollock, in addition to his own accomplishments as an artist).

He was even the first painter to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Benton’s influence on Hollywood

In most cases, the influence of visual artists on filmmakers is indirect.

Director John Ford, for example, obviously knew the works of artist Frederic Remington. That artist’s compositions are easy to spot in many Ford Westerns. But Remington, who was long dead before Ford started making movies, probably never set foot on anyone’s film set.

Benton designed and painted sets, and even acted in at least one lost silent film.

But this exhibition makes it clear that Benton’s career was tied to motion pictures in a surprising number of direct ways. They include:

Actual practice: Beginning in about 1913, when Benton was in his mid-20s, the artist worked on films produced in Fort Lee, N.J., which was a filmmaking center in that era. He designed and painted sets, and even acted in at least one lost silent film. That early brush with the movies ended when Benton joined the Navy in 1918.

A visit to the sets: In 1937, Benton made his first trip to Hollywood after being commissioned to do a set of works for Life magazine depicting the film industry in action.

Benton spent a month in Tinseltown, and especially on the soundstages and back lots of 20th Century Fox Studios, producing about 400 drawings and paintings based on what he saw. But, for unknown reasons, Life never published those pictures, Bailly said.

Promotion: In 1940, Benton was commissioned to do a series of drawings and paintings for use in promoting John Ford’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. And in 1954, Benton provided a dramatic portrait of Burt Lancaster in his title role as The Kentuckian that was used for the movie’s poster.

Hollywood ownership: Lancaster owned the aforementioned painting by Benton, and eventually donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other Hollywood notables who owned or own Bentons include Harpo Marx (the exhibition includes a drawing Benton made of the silent member of the Marx Brothers comedy team), famed director King Vidor and, more contemporaneously, Rob LaZebnik — co-executive producer for The Simpsons animated television series and the author of one of the chapters of the excellent catalog created for this exhibition.

The paintings

Perhaps the defining painting in the exhibition (Bailly called it “the star” of the show, without seeming to care if we took that as a pun) is Hollywood, one of the works resulting from Benton’s trip to the movie-making capital in 1937.

The painting is reminiscent of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Its eye-grabbing female figure is just as centered and almost as naked as Botticelli’s goddess. But instead of being surrounded by mythological figures, Benton’s film goddess is set amid an almost kaleidoscopic assortment of movie-making machines and technicians.

Cameras ride in on cranes, a wind machine stands at the ready, lights and microphones are seen being adjusted, various crew members scramble, actors emote and, in the deep background, a billowing cloud of black smoke can be seen rising from the burning set of the 1937 film In Old Chicago.

It is a magnificent example of how Benton could take ancient influences (Bailly said that “the painters that Benton was looking at are all on the walls at the Kimbell.”) and incorporate them into his desire to celebrate America at work in his canvases.

His series “Year of Peril” was painted in a white-hot fury of creativity in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

There are also a few works that show a Benton we do not often see.

His series “Year of Peril” was painted in a white-hot fury of creativity in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Those works are among several that are only tangentially connected with the show’s theme (the paintings appeared in movie newsreels chronicling the success of a New York exhibition of the works) and their content is shocking in comparison to the pastoral, rural works for which earned Benton his label of “American regionalist.”

The three works from this series (there were a total of eight) are violent and grotesque. They show drunken enemy troops stabbing ordinary American citizens with bayonets, among other disquieting content.

Bailly said it was Benton’s intent to combat what he felt was the complacency of the American public about World War II, and to help the war effort, but “he may have kind of misfired in the way he thought he might be able to participate in that messaging.”

The process

In addition to offering such a broad sampling of Benton’s works, the exhibition is laudable for giving us a glimpse at the process behind them.

The Kentuckian (1954) display is especially interesting in that light.

In addition to the painting, which is one of the larger works in the exhibit, the sketches he used to prepare for the painting are also displayed. Surprisingly, they include a rendering of the intended work done with cube-shaped figures, in addition to more traditional drawings and oil sketches.

And that is not all the prep work that Benton usually did for a painting.

“He would actually sculpt the composition in three dimensions using modeling clay, which was a technique of the old masters,” Bailly said, referring to the models, which are called maquettes.

So with this exhibition, you see not only what Benton did, but how he did it. And it is all as riveting as any blockbuster at the local cineplex.

If the Amon Carter sold popcorn at this show, it would be perfect.

American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

  • Through May 1
  • Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
  • Free
  • 817-989-5067; www.cartermuseum.org

Film series

In conjunction with this exhibition, the Carter is offering a trio of film screenings that are linked to Benton’s work and times. They are:

Sunday: A Star Is Born

March 13: The Grapes of Wrath

April 10: They Died With Their Boots On (reservations open March 1)

All showings are at 1:30 p.m. at the museum.

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