Expansive murals, vertical spirals, size changes that make you feel like you are looking up & down into a scene, these are the calling cards of a man once called America’s best-known contemporary painter, Thomas Hart Benton— and the subject of a special Peabody Essex Museum exhibit.
In fact, this is the first major exhibition on Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) in more than 25 years and the first ever to explore important connections between Benton’s art and the movies. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood was organized by the PEM in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, Missouri) and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (Fort Worth). It will be at PEM through September 7th in the Special Exhibition Galleries.
Benton’s art & style will also be the theme for “Epic Adventures,” this month’s PEM/PM late night evening party.
But first some background on Mr. Benton. According to PEM, Benton became acutely aware of storytelling’s shift toward motion pictures after working briefly in the silent film industry, and “developed a cinematic style of painting that melded European art historical traditions and modern movie production techniques.”
In paintings, murals, drawings, prints and illustrated books, Benton reinvented national narratives for 20th-century America and captivated the public with his visual storytelling.
Benton’s story is fascinating, the ups / the downs (an informal survey of museum-goers at all the participating institutions revealed that only 25% had even heard of Benton), how he perfected his technique and how he was received are all part of this PEM podcast.
And, if you have the time, this WBUR (90.9 FM, Boston’s National Public radio news station) feature story provides extra insights.
For example, besides the paintings to see in this exhibit, there is something you can actually touch. In the WBUR report, it is mentioned that “the artist fashioned clay models of characters and scenery that he would light up like tiny Hollywood film sets, then painting them. There’s a replica of a surviving Benton clay model (or maquettes) in the PEM show. The original was too delicate and valuable to ship, so in a first for the museum, curators actually created a 3-D print.”
This is interesting in itself as Benton once said, ‘I feel my paintings in my hands.”
The WBUR story also mentioned that Benton constantly traveled; his road trips sought out authentic stories, scenes and characters to populate his works.
As the great American road trip, from Easy Rider to National Lampoon’s Vacation, still inspires a sense of freedom and exploration, PEM/PM for June 18 from 6-9 pm invites you to follow artist Benton’s travels across America with map and postcard art, real-life road stories, a travel-themed beer tasting and gallery talks.
Also featured at this month’s PEM/PM evening are folk music sessions by Dan Blakeslee and Jennifer Evans, a visit from the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts and an author talk / signing with Andre Dubus III.
As always, a cash bar and refreshments available; members and Salem residents (with ID) free, nonmembers $10 at the door for PEM/PM.
The American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood exhibition was made possible in part by Bank of America and a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence. The National Endowment for the Arts and Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation provided generous support. Christie’s provided in-kind support. The East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum also provided support.
For more info, go to PEM website or call 978-745-9500. The Peabody Essex Museum is located at East India Square (161 Essex St) Salem, Massachusetts.
(Cover photo “Bootleggers” Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)