PEM Thomas Hart Benton Exhibit a Dramatic Slice of Americana

“Hollywood” — The 1937-38 Life magazine commission is the centerpiece of the Peabody Essex Museum’s exciting new exhibit.

For Thomas Hart Benton, history was not a scholarly study, but a drama. The bold and ambitious artist was, at heart, a terrific storyteller who could connect his audience to characters. His medium was painting and his subject matter was anything identified with American culture, from Native Americans and the Wild West to the Jim Crow South to Hollywood and its glamorous movie industry. The not-to-be-missed new show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem takes a multi-media approach to a most remarkable artist’s work and life.

Benton (1889-1975) was born in Missouri where he served as a congressman before leaving to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, later moving to Paris to continue his studies. His first major mural series, “American Historical Epic,” retold America’s history through his uniquely satirical, provocative and serious eye. Although it was a commercial failure (he had painted it on spec), it established him as an artist capable of producing large public works.

Benton and Rita

“Self Portrait with Rita” — The self-portrait of Benton and his wife that made the coveted cover of Time magazine in 1934.

His self-portrait with his wife, Rita, landed Benton on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 and skyrocketed his career. The painting, which greets the visitor at the exhibit’s entrance, is quintessential Benton. The modeled figures pay homage to the Italian Renaissance masters, whose methods Benton adopted by making clay models and painting from them in his studio. The couple expresses the ultimate modern American identity: modern, outdoorsy, and dazzlingly stylish. Yet there is something aloof in their gazes and Benton’s faceless watch leaves the viewer wondering what might be amiss.

His provocative and gifted paintings (and the fact that he had adorned its rival’s cover) caught the eye of Life magazine editors, who commissioned him in 1937 to spend a month in Hollywood preparing for a “movie mural” which would be the centerfold of its issue about the glitzy new industry. The painting is the centerpiece of the PEM exhibit’s most entertaining section devoted to all things cinematic, including clips of movies (“Last of the Mohicans”, “America”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Big Trail”, and especially, “Grapes of Wrath”) for which Benton painted the official publicity poster.

His tongue-in-cheek approach to the industry and his amazing power of observation are a delight to behold. His attention to wacky details and ability to generate emotion while telling an engaging story create compelling images that border on caricature, much as the movies of that era did. Nonetheless, upon closer inspection of the captivating painting, it becomes clear that Benton was more interested in telling the stories of the ordinary people behind the scenes rather than those of the screen stars.

Within a single career, Benton embraced many styles and immersed himself in many genres, all on display in the informative and expertly staged exhibition. The modern mythmaker explored the macho, grotesque violence of World War II with a style akin to Marvel Comic superheroes and super villains. He also portrayed the innocence and optimism of the young American boys shipped overseas to confront those demons. His renditions of the plight and contributions of the “modern Negro” tell tales of slavery, romance and jazz.

Between 1946 and 1975 Benton completed nine more murals. He was in the midst of finishing his last commission for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville when he died at age 85.

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” runs through September 7.

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