Yesterday found me, where I so often am, in the Petrie Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on some poetry. Draft done, I wandered a bit and, serendipitously for Columbus Day weekend, walked right into the Met’s wonderful new exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930 murals for The New School, America Today. What a treat.
I’ve always liked Benton, despite his bad rap as being out-of-touch (proclaimed loudly by his student — and model for some figures in the murals — Jackson Pollock). Regionalism has long appealed to me. (My college-era copy of Appalachian Spring — which I played on the first day of each fall semester — features a cover by Grant Wood, living in the Berkshires gave me an appreciation for rural American beauty, etc., etc.) I appreciate the regionalists’ efforts to ground their rapidly changing society in core American values. And, as a Civil War buff, Benton’s provenance always appealed to me — his great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two senators from Missouri, a big booster of westward expansion, and the father-in-law of decent Civil War general but first-rate explorer, John Fremont (whom Lincoln relieved of command for insubordination when Fremont prematurely emancipated the slaves in the west).
I also have a soft spot for The New School, for the board room of which the murals were painted. As a somewhat intellectually precocious child growing up in the metropolitan area, I was fascinated by The New School’s bold progressivism (Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Horace Kallen were among its founders) and its history as a refuge for Jewish and other European scholars escaping tyranny. (The University in Exile was created in 1933.) So I guess what I’m saying is that I was predisposed to like the exhibition.
The Met does a lot of really smart things (like building a replica of a medieval monastery in Fort Tryon Park to house much of the medieval religious collection, recreating an entire Zen garden, housing an entire Egyptian temple, etc., etc.). So, no surprise here, the murals are displayed in a room that is the scale of the original room in which they were painted, complete with false, backlit windows to create the aura of sunlight. Before arriving, though, you pass through several well-curated rooms providing the context for America Today – Berenice Abbott photos, work by John Steuart Curry and Jackson Pollock, and lots of Benton’s sketches from his travels around the country prior to The New School commission.
There is no subtlety to the mural’s messages, but then again, there was no real subtlety to the often outspoken Benton. It is America at a crossroads, vibrant and powerful following The Great War and the Roaring Twenties, but at the cusp of the Depression, having just suffered the 1929 Crash (a future Benton hints at with a transom panel over the entry door depicting raised hands, money, and bread). Rural life is changing, although clearly less-so in Benton’s panel on the South. Money becomes dominant, traditions break apart. Farm machinery begins to dominate the Midwest. Coal’s dominion spreads from mountain to city, broken workers bent with picks held low. Muscular steel mills manned by muscular men (with the Pollock-modelled figure). Ominous clouds of black smoke rising above Texas oil wells. And several tawdry gardens of urban delights, from flappers to strippers to preachers to Salvation Army soldiers to musicians and bar tenders and, in a corner toasting the completion of the murals, Benton himself, with New School President, Alvin Johnson.
It really is Benton at his best. The motion and rhythms of the murals are entrancing, even overwhelming. The relatively small scale of the room intensifies the mural’s power. I had to go around several times, and take a break before returning. The human figures are touchingly expressive, from the chain-ganged African Americans, to the aforementioned miners, to the absolutely laugh-out-loud hilariously wonderful figure of the burlesque dancer. The power, the despair, the dignity, and the riotous rebellion against traditional strictures, are clear, powerful, and undeniable. The colors are vibrant. Even the dull silver framing (which very cleverly helps to separate scenes and direct one’s viewing) has a subtle motion as well as an Art-Deco elegance.
The exhibition concludes (just outside the visual respite of the Frank Lloyd Wright Little House living room which, trust me, you’re going to need to walk in to), with a brief film on the history of the murals and the Met’s acquisition of them. I, for one, am quite grateful to AXA Equitable for keeping them together after The New School sold them, and for the Met’s acquisition. It would have been a tragic loss for them to have been separated. As it turns out, the Met does justice to Benton’s work. I encourage you to go see it.