“Thomas Hart Benton, A Life” by Justin Wolff - Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Every young art student should read this book as well as artists who enjoy learning about the travails of other painters. This excellent account of a painter’s life will appeal to those interested in Americana and populist movements. In short, this biography of the 20th century American painter Thomas Hart Benton is an engaging and worthwhile read.
Any artist who finds himself moving in concert with such important Americans as Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Lewis Mumford and Harry Truman will find a democratic, leftist and spiritual view that resonates with the current political landscape as well as timeless issues and movements.
The issues Benton confronted and expressed in picture and word are still relevant. Benton had a lifelong disdain for many of those who held power, be it museum and academic leaders or political and corporate bosses. He pushed away from ready charts, however, and distanced himself from the Communists, yet held the Fascists in equal contempt, so much so that he certainly had no qualms for using his art as a propaganda tool to promote the war effort of the 1940’s, which is to say, to help defeat the rise of fascist in Europe, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler. When Woody Guthrie’s guitar had emblazoned the words, “This Guitar Kills Fascists” or when John Steinbeck’s novels were expressing the lives of the farmers of the American heartland during the 1930’s dust bowl, Benton was there too, using his canvases to give voice and cohesion to many aspects of American history. We also learn of a few of his less-than-successful compromises on certain commissions where he was too eager to please and lost some integrity in the process. His murals for state capitols, Hollywood and important libraries,-- even the Whitney Museum commissioned him--, show his work at its heroic best and most distinctly American. He trumpeted the values of everyday Americans and their rural agrarian roots. One of my favorite and perhaps his most iconic work was the easel painting that illustrated the song about a love gone wrong, “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie.”
The book is copiously researched with so many details of the artist’s life and aesthetic struggles. From his early struggles as an art student in Paris around the turn of the 19th century to the intimacies of his marriage and early upbringing to his fractious relationship with his student Jackson Pollock we learn many intriguing facts. Benton’s ordeal of struggling mightily with artistic identity for many years during and after his Paris years is particularly rewarding. He experimented with many types of popular French art, Impressionism and cubism but eventually settled on his hybrid style that used the American scene as his muse. It is interesting however, to see his thorough knowledge of art history as his final style is a synthesis of three mannerist painters: Pontormo, Michelangelo and El Greco. His work, which often includes figures shows his appreciation for the distortions and accentuations of modeling that those 16th century painters used. Benton’s use of egg tempera paint also shows an affinity for the Renaissance masters and he is reported to have used the early 15th century handbook by the Italian theorist Cennino Cennini as his guide. This connection with materials and techniques of the past was another way he rejected the modernists1 art of the mid twentieth century and continued on his maverick mission.
In Benton’s time as well as currently his art was grouped together with Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry as being part of a homegrown art that became known as regionalism. Their images of genre scenes connected deeply with the populace and were promoted and encouraged by businessmen as well as by an artists’ consortium. These artists, along with many others were given work by the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal. This philanthropic government program was called the Works Projects Administration and spearheaded the commissioning of artists to create murals for government buildings.
Benton’s pugnacious personality and often times repellent opinions are as distasteful today as they were then, but still they add to a fascinating read that carves out the character of this important American painter.