Saturday, December 9, 2017

American Epics edited by Austen Barron Bailly

This is the book of a traveling art exhibition I saw at the Milwaukee Art Museum -- Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

A thoroughly American artist and a consummate storyteller, Thomas Hart Benton is an epic subject in his own right, but even Benton fans may be surprised to learn of his connections to the film industry. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood turns a spotlight on Benton’s early work in silent film production in New Jersey and his later expeditions to Hollywood, illuminating the impact of these experiences on his art and career. This stunning volume traces Benton’s relationships with film and Hollywood through more than eighty reproductions of his art and twelve informative essays by experts on Benton and American art and culture.

I didn’t know much about Thomas Hart Benton before going to the exhibition, but that entry paragraph on the front overleaf pretty well sums it up. Benton, I came to discover was a popular mural painter, receiving numerous commissions throughout his career for murals in conspicuous public spaces.

And murals, of course, are stories. And the best of that bunch, in my opinion, is his American Historical Epic.

But earlier in his career, in his first attempt at public art, Benton tried to combine the West’s myths with its realities. Seeking to participate in public debates about who and what was authentically American, Benton created his American Historical Epic, a critical history of the United States. Without a commission to pay for it or a building to house it, Benton independently produced a cinematic series of fourteen mural panels -- each five to six feet high by four to six feet wide. Installed side by side, the panels … amount to more than sixty feet in length. The titles and imagery unflinchingly revised traditional and idealized versions of American history to emphasize scenes of violence and exploitation.

I’ve reproduced above the first five of these paintings: Discovery, The Palisades, Aggression, Prayer, and Retribution; what Benton called Chapter 1 of the epic. Two other chapters follow, but today, even in the age of Google, these images are hard to find. At the exhibition, all were on display, but only nine were the original paintings. The other five were careful reproductions, placed, obviously, to give the viewer the full effect that Benton intended. And it was quite an effect. The figures are near life size, and the span of shapes and colors fill your entire field of vision. Their relative compositions are frequently doubled and interrelated with one another -- in Chapter 1, for example, Native American figures bookend the series, one facing right towards the approaching Europeans and the other facing left, poised to deliver a fatal blow to a helpless pilgrim, with a third Indian figure in the very center of the grouping, suspended in an act of violence being perpetrated on him. And throughout, despite the simplicity of the figures, a surprising number of details reveal themselves to the careful observer.

I can see why they were (and perhaps still are) unpopular. They shatter a set of prevailing myths of early American history, myths that Benton had spent several years servicing and enforcing as a set and promotional artist in the early days of the American film industry. Even before the rise of the talkies, the Western was well established as a distinct genre of popular entertainment, with many of the tropes and constructs we still recognize today.

How strange it then seemed, at least to me, to see Benton’s work during the Second World War, where, like many a patriotic American artist, he used his considerable talents not to shatter but to reinforce the myths and the stereotypes of that conflict.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided an instantaneous casus belli, mobilizing public and private support for American engagement in total war. Benton’s own pent-up anxieties about the security of the nation were unleashed by the attack, and he began to work immediately, and furiously, on an ambitious project called Year of Peril (YOP), a series of eight propagandistic paintings he finished in about four months. Benton dedicated the project to “those new Americans who, born again through appreciation of their country’s great need, find themselves with new shares of patriotism and intelligence, and new wills to see what is what and to come to grips with it, in this Year of Peril.”

Whether it is the depiction of savagery upon civilians in Invasion...


...or the caricaturistic allegories bleeding across the canvas in Exterminate!...


...or the monsters flying Axis flags seen crucifying Christ in Again...


...I personally find plenty of patriotism, but not much intelligence; the social commentary of his American Historical Epic entirely supplanted by the unnerving jingoism of the times.

I far prefer Benton’s more simple and more transcendent works. Pieces like Romance, painted in 1932, with allegory and meaning so deep and purposeful, I was entranced by the thoughtful essay written about it by Richard Powell.


An impossibly elongated couple, walking hand in hand, commands center stage in Romance, a painting by the renowned American artist Thomas Hart Benton. A woman, wearing a red dress and a cloche, and her partner, a barefoot man with his shirtsleeves and pant legs rolled up, are enveloped by an idealized southern United States landscape -- a rickety wagon, a moss-covered tree, a cabin with a stone chimney, a worn-out barrel -- and an anthropomorphic sky, with a cloud-shuttered moon resembling the heavy-lidded all-seeing eye of a gigantic deity.

Depicted with downcast heads and austere, serious expressions, the pair appears to be moving with an intended objective in mind, their long, gangly limbs are caught mid-stride, almost as if they are dancing but without the frivolity or theatricality of a pas de deux. Their mirrored movements and near-identical poses underscore their assumed status as a couple and suggest a common purpose within the painting’s implicit narrative, in which they are ostensibly walking away from the rustic scene behind them and toward an open, shadowy land ahead, at the lower-left corner of the painting.

I didn’t see all of that upon first look, but it is all there. But what’s more remarkable, and what the essay goes into much greater depth on, is Benton’s intended meaning behind that dangling pair of shoes.

Benton’s autobiography An Artist in America offers clues to what he might have intended with this visual passage. In the chapter titled “The South,” Benton inserted the following, somewhat cryptic, anecdote from his travels in the late 1920s below the Mason-Dixon Line:

“Two Negro boys were walking along a dusty north Georgia road. They were barefoot. Their new pants were rolled up in fat cuffs below their knees. Both had shiny patent leather shoes hanging from their shoulders. One carried a bulging black paper suitcase, the straps of which were reinforced with strands of rope. It was a heavy load. They were sad-eyed and their lips drooped.

“‘Mistah,’ said one to me, ‘is it fuh frum hyeah to Noo Yauk?’”

As suggested in this story (and possibly in Benton’s Romance), the triumvirate of bare feet, unworn shoes, and African American travelers collectively conjures not just an image of a leisurely stroll or an obligatory walk by country folk but also visions or escape and migration. Beyond this particular recollection, there are other references in Benton’s autobiography to black subjugation and white brutality in the South that function as subliminal spurs for these boys: the psychological cuts and actual blows that prompted them to take up a “heavy load” and seek refuge in “Noo Yauk.” Their journey -- a symbolic, barefoot pilgrimage to freedom -- and their shoes -- emblems of prestige and modernity -- resonate with Benton’s Romance through these same components, the couple’s sober, ambulatory undertaking and the scene’s overarching serious-mindedness and moon-lit singularity. Indeed, the descriptive breakdown and itemized recounting of bare feet, rolled-up cuffs, and hanging shoes operated in both Benton’s text and his painting as surrealistic fragments: focal, discernable elements that triggered subconscious figments of corporeality, orderliness, and flight, respectively.

What a wonderful description of the things that all great art contains -- surrealistic fragments; focal, discernable elements that trigger our subconscious. And on that front, these shoes, it seems, have even more to trigger in us.

And one doesn’t want to exclude from a discussion of Benton’s fixations on bare feet and isolated shoes his lifelong admiration for fellow Missourian, the author and humorist Mark Twain, and Twain’s well-documented deployment of these same emancipatory icons in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Observing an African American shoeshine boy cleaning a pair of riding boots on the back stoop of a southern hotel, Benton became captivated by the boy’s work song, which he repeated over and over again, Benton noted in his autobiography, with “a funereal solemnity”:

Dem ole duhty shoes
Dem ole duhty shoes
Who se-e-ehd dem shoes --

Like Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of abandoned, seemingly forsaken shoes, the spare refrain of Benton’s shoeshine boy paints an evocative still life with words: a sound-painting fraught with privation, melancholy, and the ghostly specter of feet that once resided in an empty pair of brogans. In another Benton painting, Butterfly Catcher (1942), the artist consigned a derelict, shabby shoe to a landscape of forest undergrowth, rotted tree trunks, and debris, relying on the viewer’s ability to conceptually link the true butterfly chaser (in the far distance), the butterfly’s literary associations with departed souls, and the cadaverous shoe in the immediate foreground. Vacant, unfilled shoes, and other marked absences in Western art and visual culture, often signify death, and, in the context of Benton’s Romance, the barefoot man’s dangling oxfords unavoidably evoke, along with Mark Twain’s two defiantly shoeless protagonists, the lynched bodies of black men, suspended from gnarled tree branches and strained ropes.

Pilgrimages to freedom and the swinging bodies of lynched men. That’s a lot to pack into a pair of dangling shoes, but it is, I think, an example of what makes great art so compelling and worth understanding.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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