When you first walk into the State Historical Society of Missouri’s art gallery, what will immediately catch your eye is the gigantic George Caleb Bingham piece “Order No. 11.” Or perhaps if you say hello to the man behind the desk, the huge portrait of President Truman and his family painted by Greta Kempton will be the first painting you see. But neither of these pieces will prepare you for what lies around the corner.
Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889 to a family of Missouri politicians. His father, U.S. Congressman Maecenas Benton, wished for him to follow in his footsteps and pursue a political career. However, with the financial help of his mother Benton went to study art in Chicago and Paris. After his education he established himself in New York before serving in the U.S. Navy during WWI. His service required him to illustrate the life and work of the American shipyards and use his illustration skills to document camouflaged ships. The realism required for these tasks greatly influenced Benton’s style. Upon his return to New York from Virginia where he was stationed, Benton went against the mainstream, developing a genre of art called “regionalism”. Regionalism involves the realistic and idyllic depiction of small-town America.
Thomas Hart Benton: The Complete Editioned Lithographs, Installment One, on display through November 16th, shows a different side of Benton. His works may evoke feelings of a cartoony representation of everyday life in the Midwest. His rippled figures and dramatic colors here, though, are exhibited in a different way than how you can see them at the Met or the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Your first glimpse of Benton will involve skinny American soldiers battling racist caricatures of the Axis powers. One soldier pulls a chain out of the entrails of the humanoid representation of Imperial Japan, while another stabs him in the chest with a bayonet. This scene plays out on the backdrop of fire, smoke, and destruction that comes with industrial warfare. This painting, titled “Exterminate” (1942) is part of a little known series of paintings Benton did during WWII depicting his sentiments and acting as effective propaganda.
Many of Benton’s WWII paintings are large with low horizon lines so that they loom over you, evoking fear, like in the piece “Invasion”, or inspire awe, in the case of “Negro Soldier.” But the real focus of this exhibition is supposed to be the edition of lithographs and other small works Benton did over the course of his career. And indeed these are charming pieces, worlds away from the other paintings on display.
One of the lithographs depicts the immortalized tale of Frankie and Johnny. Frankie and Johnny gained notoriety in Missouri after 22-year-old Frankie Baker found her boyfriend Allen Britt in bed with another woman at their apartment, and shot him dead. The case rocked Missouri and became the subject of popular songs, with Allen’s name at some point being changed to Johnny. Benton’s lithograph depicts the events in an old-timey saloon instead of a bedroom, with people fleeing, a shocked bartender, and a wood-burning stove cutting through the scene. You can see Benton’s “Frankie and Johnnie” at the Missouri capital, as this lithograph was a draft for his mural.
Benton’s regionalism evokes the romanticism of Midwestern life, and what is more characteristic of that than the works of Mark Twain? You can see on display illustrations used in special editions of Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Benton’s lithographs include early ideas for paintings, regional folktales, and character designs for the 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath.
“I suppose as a Missourian, I take pride in having an artists like Benton hail from my state” says Historical Society curator Dr. Joan Stack. But Stack also has an interest in Benton from the perspective of an art historian. “I feel that Benton’s reputation as a cantankerous character kept many art historians of the past from looking into the interesting ways his images help us better understand historical issues… .”
I would recommend everyone to see this. It was a beautifully curated collection with a breadth of information that was thought-provoking about Benton’s work as well as Missouri culture.