Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Past and Passed

When Thomas Hart Benton painted a mural cycle for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair to represent the state of Indiana, he wanted to show the entire history of the state—good and bad. Born April 15, 1889, Benton drew fire for one panel called Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press (above, from 1933) in which he shows the Ku Klux Klan, a powerful, racist presence in Indiana in the 1920s. Amazingly, the murals made it to the World’s Fair, but later languished in various homes until Indiana University took them. The infamous KKK mural, which made brought Benton his first fame, now occupies a college classroom. “History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama,” Benton later said, reflecting his belief in history as a study of people and their stories rather than dry facts and dates. While Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists were painting the history of Mexico, Benton painted America’s past in his dramatic, muscular style, perfectly suited to the brawny persona the nation was beginning to adopt as it assumed a more prominent role in the world between the wars. Sadly, that approach to the past eventually resulted in Benton himself being passed by.

Benton saw history as specifically social history—the tale of people rather than rulers and their armies. In another state mural, for his native state, A Social History of the State of Missouri, Benton painted Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in one panel (above, 1936). In showing Huck with Jim, the escaped slave, Benton took on the issue of race again, bringing it home, as it were, to the deep South, which still employed the Jim Crow laws resulted from the failure of Reconstruction. Along with Grant Wood, Benton most often gets labeled with the Regionalist tag, which I’ve always seen as a diminutive assessment. Benton and Wood are much larger than just the region they come from. Clearly, they paint what they know, but the slice of American life they portray applies in many ways to the entire American odyssey. Benton studied in Paris for years and credited El Greco as an influence, making claims for his innate “American-ness” or “Midwestern” qualities seem thin.

Benton’s moment in the sun was quite brief. By the 1950s, modern art had quite literally passed him by. Despite his deep hatred for modern art, Benton actually contributed to the phenomenon that made him seem a dinosaur in teaching Jackson Pollock, whose Abstract Expressionism replaced Benton’s masculine Americanism with a new brand for the Cold War years. Benton’s later works seem painfully awkward, such as The Twist (above, from 1964), which tries to show the dance craze years after the height of its popularity. Benton’s marrying of his hate for modern art and modern art museums with his homophobia, calling the typical museum "a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait," led to his marginalization in the 1940s and makes him seem even more like a caveman today. At his best, Benton helped paint the history of the American people. At his worst, Benton embodied some of the same narrowing prejudices that he brought to light in his art.

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