Revisiting Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton:  A Life is a new biography of the American Regionalist artist by Justin Wolff (reviewed in the NY Times 7-1-12.)  Reading about Benton reminded me of my scorn for this reactionary, xenophobic, homophobe back when I was in art school in the 1970’s.  His life’s arc is summed up by the fact that this popular and successful Social Realist artist was eclipsed by his former student, Jackson Pollock.  Benton’s stylized realism and nostalgic view of a simpler America was like Andy Griffith at a Lady Gaga concert.

My personal view of Benton evolved as I outgrew the need to square off against ideologies in art, in order to form my own identity.  In other words, I put aside my own prejudices against Benton’s prejudices, and took a fresh look at his work.  In the mid 80’s, I happened upon a trove of Benton lithographs in an exhibit at R. S. Johnson Fine Art in Chicago.  I was struck by the sinuous beauty and powerfully expressive line in Benton’s graphic work.

Reading about Benton today, I thought about ways his influence pervaded American art.  One of my favorite films is Night Of The Hunter, by Charles Laughton.  Looking at film stills, it is clear that Laughton had a painter’s sense of expressionist drama. Perhaps his stylized view was influenced by Benton’s view of silhouettes of the human drama, played out against the gentle swell of Midwestern plains and river valleys.

Grant Wood, despite the iconic status of American Gothic,  also has been marginalized.  Until I saw the fine collection of his work at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa, I thought of him as a one-hit-wonder.  Like Benton, his work has a lyrical, stylized approach to American landscape that is as distinctive as it is beautiful.  It is well worth a second look.

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2 responses to “Revisiting Thomas Hart Benton

  1. I am a little shocked that you hated him so much. What you were seeing in his art I didn’t see it all all. I just loved the intensity of the storytelling. You are probably not shocked that he has always been a favorite of mine. Especially his painting Persephone. That probably doesn’t surprise you either. To me there is such magic in his work. And I just love the imagery of the Heartland so much much. I can feel even when I drive cross country even though it has changed to much. Night of the Hunter has that same dreamlike quality, as you pointed out. I would also say there is a link between his paintings and the books of Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors.

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    • Thank you for responding so thoughtfully to my post. I can see why you relate to the narrative strengths in Benton, and the populist feeling of his work. I didn’t say I “hated” him, but when I was in college, I felt scorn for his politics and his reactionary response to the art world, as it evolved away from realism. As I pointed out, I needed to become more open-minded and tolerant myself in order to appreciate his art, politics aside. I also admire his Persephone painting. As I have researched artists who work in egg tempera, I was surprised to find out that Benton painted wonderfully in this medium. I particularly admire his lithographs. He is a master at graphic design and rendering in black and white. I agree about Willa Cather, that’s a great connection. I think that Benton has a wonderful connection with nature, a quality which becomes increasingly important to me, as time goes on.

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