Thomas Hart Benton Celebration
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
222 Fifth Ave. S
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
$12.95 adults, ages 17 and under admitted free
For information, call 416-2096
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is one of the best-known American Regionalist painters, second only to Grant (“American Gothic”) Wood in name recognition. Yet Benton’s final masterpiece doesn’t share wall space with other great paintings in some art museum. Instead it hangs among the bronze plaques honoring the biggest names in country music in the industry’s holiest of holiesthe Country Music Hall of Fame. That, however, is exactly where Benton wanted his final work to hang. The museum’s first-ever salute to Benton this weekend shines a long overdue spotlight on both the mural and the artist.
Commissioned by the museum in late 1973, Benton’s mural “The Sources of Country Music” features a dizzying array of fiddlers, dulcimer players, cowboy singers, banjo pickers, square dancers and a church choir set against a backdrop of a fast-moving train and a riverboat on the far horizon. The 6-by-9-foot work on canvas took Benton more than a year to complete, and the 83-year-old artist died just as he was about to sign the painting and apply a final coat of varnish. For an artist like Benton, it was the equivalent of a cowboy dying with his boots on.
“As a Regionalist, Benton focused on everyday life in the Midwest. But he was himself a musician, and his studio in New York City was a haven for country music players in the 1930s,” says Vivien Green Fryd, associate professor of art history and American and Southern studies at Vanderbilt University. Fryd participates in a panel discussion on Benton’s life and career, 2 p.m. April 28 at the museum. Also on the panel are Benton experts Henry Adams and Len Aronson, as well as Bill Ivey and Norman Worrell, who were instrumental in the Benton commission. Ivey, the former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, was director of the Country Music Foundation from 1971 to 1998, and Worrell was executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission when Benton was hired to paint the mural.
Though Benton was born in the small Missouri town of Neosho, he had less in common with the farm folks and country musicians he loved to paint than one might think. The son of a congressman, Benton studied art as a child at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., before continuing his formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris. And though he became famous as an enemy of Modernism, he participated in the then radical art movements of his time. “When he began painting, he actually began in a modernist idiom,” Fryd says. “Early in his career, in fact, he experimented with abstraction. But when Benton returned to the U.S. after studying in Paris, he decided to focus on recognizably American subjects and came to believe that abstraction was an effete, European style.”
Even the artist’s close friendship with the great American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who studied with him in New York, suffered in the face of Benton’s passionate advocacy of Regionalism. “Benton and Pollock were very closeit was almost a father-son relationship,” notes Fryd. “In fact, Pollock’s early works were similar to Benton’s, and he also joined in the country music sessions at Benton’s studio. So Benton was devastated when Pollock switched to abstract expressionism.”
Interestingly enough, Pollock’s drip paintings owe something to his studies with Benton. “Benton uses swirls and curves to unify his work, and so does Pollock,” Fryd points out. While Pollock’s arcing splatters of paint created abstract designs, Benton used undulating waves of paint to depict the people and places of American history and folklore. Benton’s signature style is evident in the black sharecropper and mule-drawn wagon of “Lonesome Road” (1927), in Jesse James robbing a bank in “A Social History of the State of Missouri”(1935) and in the scantily clad Blanche Dubois of “Poker Night” (1948), a work based on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
In creating “The Sources of Country Music,” Benton worked closely with Bill Ivey and others at the Country Music Foundation. “Members of the board recommended that Benton include a train in the mural, for example, and there is a letter from Ivey to Benton explaining that,” says Fryd. Visitors to the museum can clearly see the evolution of Benton’s mural in the models and sketches displayed in a third-floor gallery devoted to the mural’s creation. The train, modeled after the Cannonball Express of Casey Jones fame, appears in most sketches but not in one. The choir, added at Ivey’s suggestion to emphasize white Protestant musical contributions, is more clearly in a church in one sketch, but appears less so in the final mural. The African American banjo player, while not as key a figure as the white musicians, was part of Benton’s original concept, and the foundation’s board never questioned his inclusion.
The sketches and the three-dimensional miniature model that Benton worked from are, in some ways, more valuable than the mural itself. Benton rarely saved his sketches after a work was completed and usually destroyed his models. In fact, the museum’s painted model is the only known surviving Benton model. A short video of the artist working on the mural and talking about his creative process plays continuously on a monitor in the third-floor gallery. The video was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and also includes a soundtrack of music that inspired the artist. Ken Burns’ Thomas Hart Benton documentary will also be screened during the Benton celebration this weekend. The film will be shown at 3 p.m. April 28 in the Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater, immediately following the panel discussion. A reception and stringband performance at 4:30 p.m. conclude the festivities. Admission to the panel, screening, reception and musical performance is $12 or free for museum members.
A full day of events celebrating Benton and his art is scheduled for April 27 as well. Highlights include sacred harp singing at 10 a.m., mural painting for children at 1 p.m. and musical performances and talks by artists and educators hourly from noon to 4 p.m. Admission to all Saturday events is included in the regular museum ticket price.
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