Missouri painter Thomas Heart Benton was on the cover of Time magazine on December 14, 1934. Within one year he went to Hollywood to work on movies and completed a painting called “Hollywood”. Like the Coen Brothers “Hail, Caesar”, this painting is a satirical, behind-the-scenes view of Tinseltown.
Thomas Hart Benton, whose works are often described as folksy, was not a great artist. He didn’t think of himself as a great artist. However, Benton was capable of greatness, like over-the-top and funny “Hollywood”, which is currently on display in a new show at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art. A lot of his paintings were way overdone, like his grotesque “Custer’s Last Stand”, also in this exhibit. In Benton’s opinion, history was not for scholarly study but a drama.
The Benton painting being used to promote this show is called “Self-Portrait with Rita”. Rita was Benton’s wife. In the painting she is wearing a black swimming suit and staring into space like she’s bored or distracted. Chest bared, Benton stands behind her like a Hollywood hero.
Benton worked on several films after turning from cartooning to painting and studying art in Chicago and Paris. One of his friends, many are shocked to learn, was Jackson Pollock. In fact, Pollock studied under Benton for a while. They had radically different styles, but both apparently liked to party. John Ford invited Benton to Hollywood and gave him work. For example, Benton advised Ford in the creation of The Long Voyage Home with 7 other artists, including Grant Wood. Benton’s big break was working on the ad campaign for the much honored The Grapes of Wrath. He did a painting based on A Streetcar Named Desire featuring a studly Marlon Brando.
In his spare time, Benton created movie sets and made dioramas with hand-carved clay models. One of the clever touches in this exhibit is a double-sided example of one. Ruth really enjoyed playing with it.
If you want to see Benton at his best, go to Missouri’s capitol and see the murals he painted. In the meantime, the show in Fort Worth that closes May 1, 2016, is worth a look if your travels take you to this boom town. The show is aptly called “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood”.