The Peabody Essex Museum is one of three museums that has organized a major exhibit of Thomas Hart Benton art seen through the prism of the movie industry. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is supposedly the first major traveling Benton exhibit in 25 years, and gathers more than 100 works, including paintings, murals, drawings, prints and illustrated books, pairing them with clips from Hollywood movies "to take visitors on a journey through America’s myths and into its national character." The exhibit runs June 6-Sept. 7 at PEM, before moving on to the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, both of which co-organized it. The complete press release is after the jump. (Image: Thomas Hart Benton, Self-Portrait with Rita, about 1924. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney. Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.)
PEM PRESENTS FIRST MAJOR THOMAS HART BENTON EXHIBITION
IN MORE THAN 25 YEARS
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood
EXHIBITION TRAVELS TO FOUR MUSEUMS NATIONWIDE
On view at PEM June 6 to September 7, 2015
SALEM, MA – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents the first major traveling exhibition about American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) in more than 25 years. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood explores how the motion picture industry influenced and ignited Benton’s creative imagination. Melding Old Master European painting traditions with Hollywood’s cinematic and production techniques, Benton reinvented 20th-century American narratives and captivated the public with his signature brand of visual storytelling. As lead organizer of American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, PEM hosts the exhibition from June 6 through September 7, 2015. The exhibition then travels to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, PEM’s collaborating partners on the exhibition. The Milwaukee Art Museum serves as final venue for the national tour.This major reevaluation of Benton’s art -- the first since 1989 -- gathers more than 100 works, including the artist’s paintings, murals, drawings, prints and illustrated books. The exhibition pairs curated clips from Hollywood movies with Benton’s art from the 1920s through the 1960s to take visitors on a journey through America’s myths and into its national character.
A CAST OF HEROES AND HEROINES
Benton believed that ordinary people played just as vital a role in the making of history and myth as historical figures, or movie stars. With exacting detail and immersive scale, his 1937-38 painting Hollywood captures the realities of a bustling film set: a scantily clad actress stands goddess-like in the center as workers scurry around her operating booms, lights and hydraulic lifts. During his month-long assignment in Hollywood, Benton used more than 400 graphite sketches to create 40 finished ink-and-wash drawings. The exhibition includes more than a dozen of these revealing images, which closely describe the culture, mechanics and politics of the film industry.
When America was drawn into World War II, Benton rapidly produced Year of Peril, a mural series intended to issue a “wake-up call” to his fellow countrymen and women. “War Art Creates Sensation” is the title of the 1942 Paramount Newsreel featuring Benton and these propaganda paintings. Informed both by Hollywood motifs and the artist’s personal memories of seeing soldiers departing for war, Benton paintedShipping Out in 1942. The composition recalls the final scene of the acclaimed anti-war movie from 1930,All Quiet on the Western Front, when each soldier turns to lock eyes with the viewer and bid a final farewell.
In the 1950s and 60s, Benton revisited the American West and began painting landscapes of the Great Plains, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. This “grand scenery,” as Benton called it, inspired him to explore the visual vocabulary of Hollywood Westerns and to think of his palette as akin to the bold tones and rich saturation of Technicolor. Benton’s final Hollywood commission was a 1954 promotional painting for The Kentuckian,starring Burt Lancaster as “Big Eli” and Donald MacDonald as “Little Eli.” Accompanied by their faithful hound, the characters are shown mid-quest as they head westward to establish a new life outside civilized society. The distant undulating landscape of the West beckons the travelers to this mythic realm, where blue skies, freedom and a new beginning await.
PUBLIC DISCUSSION DAY | FRIDAY, JUNE 5 | 10 am–4 pm | FREE with admission
Thomas Hart Benton and American Storytelling: Explore the art of American storytelling from the perspectives of film critics, scholars of American art and culture, production designers and writers. This program features presentations, conversations and moderated panel discussions to consider the epics that inspired Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood — cultural identity, westward expansion, race relations, war and the American Dream. Participants include, among others, production designer Charles McCarry, Benton expert Erika Doss, exhibition catalog author Jake Milgram Wien, American art scholar and guitarist Leo Mazow, and Jessie Benton, the artist’s daughter. Reservations by June 4. Visit pem.org/calendar for details.
OPENING DAY CELEBRATION | SATURDAY, JUNE 6 | 11 am-4 pm | FREE with admission
MUSIC PERFORMANCE: Craig Edwards & Friends | Noon–1:30 pm | Atrium
Craig Edwards plays a broad range of American roots music, the soundtrack popular during Thomas Hart Benton’s heyday. Enjoy traditional fiddle styles including Appalachian old-time, blues, bluegrass, Cajun and swing.
PRESENTATION: In Conversation with Curators of Art and Film | 2–3 pm | Morse Auditorium
Join Austen Barron Bailly, the exhibition’s curator and PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art,and film expert Matthew Bernstein as they explore the connection between Benton’s art and Hollywood, as well as their collaboration and Bernstein’s role as film curator for the exhibition. Bernstein and Bailly segue to a discussion of The Grapes of Wrath as expressed in Benton’s art and the film directed by John Ford. Reservations by June 2.
FILM: The Grapes of Wrath | 3:30–6 pm | Morse Auditorium
The Grapes of Wrath is John Ford’s most famous black-and-white epic drama — the classic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton. This film, starring Henry Fonda, captures the impact of a mid-1930s drought and the Great Depression upon one representative family — the Joads. Introduction by film expert Matthew Bernstein. 1940, 129 minutes. Reservations by June 2.
A 256-page publication edited by Austen Barron Bailly and published by Peabody Essex Museum and DelMonico Books • Prestel accompanies the exhibition. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is features in-depth essays, full-color images and a richly illustrated timeline. Available in the PEM Shop and online at pemshop.com.
Peabody Essex Museum | Salem, Massachusetts | June 6, 2015 - September 7, 2015
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Kansas City, Missouri | October 10, 2015 - January 3, 2016
Amon Carter Museum of American Art | Fort Worth, Texas | February 6, 2016 - May 1, 2016
Milwaukee Art Museum | Milwaukee, Wisconsin | June 9, 2016 - September 5, 2016
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in collaboration with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art, is lead curator for the exhibition. Margaret C. Conrads, Director of Curator Affairs at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Jake Milgram Wien, independent curator and historian, serve as co-curators. Matthew Bernstein, Professor of Film and Media Studies, Emory University, serve as consulting film curator.
The 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.