There are some masterpieces in "American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood," now at the Peabody Essex Museum. But just about everything is worth seeing, and a lot of it is essential, at least if you care about Twentieth Century American art. Put together by PEM curator Austen Barron Bailly, it's the first major show in 25 years dedicated to Benton (1889-1975) and will be at the museum in Salem through Sept. 7.
There's a whole storyline about Hollywood running through Benton's career, best explicated by Seb Smee in the Globe. Connections to the movie business are literal as well as stylistic. The most dazzling is "Hollywood" (below) a 56"x84" tempera and oil painting that resulted from a Life magazine commission and a month spent hanging around Hollywood studios. The result is a deep focus mural with about eight things going on at once, a co-mingling of artifice and gritty reality that doesn't quite make literal sense in the same way that Hollywood doesn't make sense. The black smoke rising from a fire in the background echoes the smoke plume in Benton's 1927 "Boomtown," also in the exhibition, but there's something incrementally more ambitious and strange in "Hollywood."
Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937-38. Tempera with oil on canvas, mounted on board, 56 x 84 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Benton's earlier American Historical Epic series (1920-28) is here, hung along the curving walls of a dazzling red room. Benton's critique of early American history, notably its brutality, rendered the series something less than popular in its day. The downside is that only nine of the 14 large paintings could be secured for the exhibit, so high-quality reproductions (unframed) are mounted alongside the real thing. That decision might be criticized by purists, but the overall impact is so potent it's hard to argue. This is work that needs to be seen together, and it's hard to imagine a better display.
Following the Hollywood trail, you'll want to see Benton's promotional art for John Ford's screen adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, but it's illustration, not really competition for the stunning paintings. I see all sorts of echoes or influences in Benton's work, from the skewed Americana of his contemporary Grant Wood to the heroic figures of Soviet art to some strange clouds that seem to leak right out of a Dali.
In Benton's 1920 "People of Chilmark (Figure Composition)" (below), a group of men and women in bathing gear rassle a small sailboat in topsy-turvy surf. One of them holds a medicine ball. What exactly is going on here? Looking just at the facts, it might be a pleasant afternoon's frolic on a Cape Cod beach where Benton spent some summers, but the composition and the dark sky suggest something far more tumultuous. It's hard to identify exactly why it seems like such a terrific painting. But does anyone else see a faint echo of "Watson and the Shark" here?
Thomas Hart Benton, People of Chilmark (Figure Composition), 1920. Oil on canvas, 65 5/8 x 77 5/8 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Scuplture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
There are not many you could call "bad" paintings in this show, although the one painted as a promotion for the Burt Lancaster film The Kentuckian seems like kitsch compared to most of what's on display. But if you want to see something truly crazy ... there are two or three of WWII-era propaganda paintings that depict Axis soldiers as subhuman monsters that you will see in your nightmares for days. One has Jesus on the cross being run through with a metal pole by a handful of these creatures while he is also strafed by a Nazi fighter plane, blood dripping down, an angular tableau like some evil inversion of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. It may not be "good" art, but it's one of the images here that will stick with you.