SALEM — Ambition breeds rivalry. And if art history is filled with stories of ambitious artists competing with one another for acclaim and ascendancy, it is also — and often more pertinently — littered with stories of great artists struggling existentially against new technologies.
Nineteenth-century inventions like photography threatened to consign painting to oblivion. And then, along came the movies. Moving pictures seemed so well suited to dramatic storytelling and mass persuasion that most painters simply vacated the arena, seeking other, more obscure purposes for art.
Most, but not all. A brilliant show that opens on Saturday at the Peabody Essex Museum takes a long, penetrating look at how one American artist — perhaps the most openly ambitious of his generation — refused to retreat and instead grappled openly with the movies. Titled “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” it is the first major show devoted to Benton in 25 years.
Benton (1889-1975) was a painter and muralist endowed with surpassing gifts and cyclonic energy. The son of a congressman from Missouri who sent him to military school and expected him to go into politics, he was named after his great-great uncle, a senator from Missouri and early champion of “Manifest Destiny.”
Benton chose art instead. Along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, he became a leading figure in the proudly parochial style known as American Regionalism. He was charismatic and intelligent, but bigotry coursed through his populist, left-leaning politics, and he had a weakness for speechifying that he couldn’t always keep out of his art.
At the heart of this show, which was organized by PEM curator Austen Barron Bailly, is a fabulous picture from 1937-38, the fruit of a Life magazine commission that sent Benton to Hollywood to paint a “movie mural.”
From an elevated vantage point, our eyes alight on a standing woman, dressed only in underwear, auditioning under bright lights for a part in a musical. The rest of the painting, which deliberately echoes the scale of a movie screen, combines interior stage sets with dissonant backdrops and deep perspective lines, leading the eye to left and to right, up and down, and out to a spectacular fire across a distant body of water.
Dozens of actors, extras, and movie crew populate the scene. Appropriate machinery (cumbersome cameras, microphones, makeup mirrors, spotlights, and loudspeakers) appear on cue as your eyes crisscross the composition.
Benton spent a month in Hollywood preparing the painting, much of it at 20th Century Fox’s studios in Century City, where several movies were being made at the time: “Ali Baba Goes to Town,” “Life Begins in College,” and “In Old Chicago” (a screwball comedy, a farce, and a big budget musical, respectively).
Benton made more than 400 sketches during his month in Hollywood, along with 40 deftly worked ink-wash drawings that were part of the commission. Selections are displayed in the same room as the painting, along with excerpts from the films he saw in production.
By the end of the 1920s, writes Erika Doss in the catalog, “Hollywood was the fifth-largest industry in the United States, grossing $1.5 billion annually.” In the 1930s, the “Big Eight” studios were releasing an average of 358 feature-length movies per year; the number had risen to more than 574 in 1938.
Was Benton celebrating all this industry, or sardonically deploring the industrial scale of it all, the naked commerce, the insult of an art form turned into a vastly profitable business?
In fact, he was deeply ambivalent.
He penned — but left unfinished — a brief account of his visit, titled “Hollywood Journey,” published for the first time in the catalog. In it, he describes the movies as “an economically conditioned art,” its products “like gambling in the stock market,” “plays for a cash return” — the whole enterprise reliant less on genuine creativity than on “tricks.” His underlying message? It’s all a con.
This was more than simply envy at work. Benton was probably the most famous American artist alive. His face had been on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. He had painted a number of large-scale, critically acclaimed murals, culminating in “America Today,” a series of 10 panels depicting life in different regions of thecountry. He had also just published a well-received autobiography, “An Artist in America.”
Benton had seen European modernism up close in Paris before World War I, and for several years had earnestly pursued abstraction. But he had seen the error of his ways, and now, back in America, he disdained European modernism as suspect and soft, a style suited, as he once declared, to “stuffed shirts and sissies.” (He was relentlessly homophobic.)
Benton and his students — prominent among them Charles Pollock and his younger brother, Jackson — had endured the Depression and all the political upheavals of the 1930s. In this fraught context, they had fought hard to prevent art from devolving into a marginal affair.
But if Benton felt himself in competition with the movies, it was not just because he saw their popularity. He loved the way they dealt in broad strokes with drama, conflict, and issues of social identity. He envied their power, their seductive pictorial mechanics. And so he was profoundly influenced by cinematic style, as every work in this exhibition has been chosen to show.
It turns out that he had deep personal roots in the movie industry. In 1913, Benton had met and befriended Rex Ingram, a Yale-trained sculptor. The two shared a decrepit studio in New York. They cast about for odd jobs in the nascent movie industry, which was not yet based in Los Angeles.
Ingram’s career advanced quickly, and he used his movie-industry connections to help Benton find odd jobs designing sets and painting backdrops — and even doing stunt work for a scene involving a barroom brawl.
By 1921, Ingram had directed the silent film classic “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” starring Rudolph Valentino. But he became increasingly disgusted by the industry. He retired from it in the 1930s and returned to sculpting. His disillusion must have been noticed by Benton.
And yet Benton’s exposure to the industry had already inspired him to make changes to his own art. Watching scene painters at work influenced his adoption of distemper, and later egg tempera, a medium which helped him achieve the bright luminosity he liked.
He was also increasingly attracted to the vast scale of the movies, and their turbulent, three-dimensional effects. In 1917, he took to making clay models of scenes he wanted to paint, to help him study the play of shadow and light. And over time, he took to working up his compositions with drawings and compositional studies very much like film strips or storyboards.
You can see Benton’s movie-mad mindset beginning to congeal in the bizarre breakthrough painting he made in 1920 called “People of Chilmark (Figure Composition).”
Chilmark is the village on Martha’s Vineyard where Benton had just begun spending his summers, and the people in the painting are identifiable inhabitants — convenient extras. And yet the work itself is utterly impersonal. It’s a dazzling exercise in color and composition, so nakedly concocted — such a strange, synthetic blend of mannerism, the movies, and modernist color — that you don’t quite know where to look.
As if deciding once and for all to take the movies on, Benton then spent almost a decade working on a 60-foot-long mural cycle called the “American Historical Epic.” No one had asked for or commissioned it, and there was no obvious place for it to go. But Benton plowed on, picturing America’s early history in an unsavory, febrile light.
If he was operating free from the crass intrusions of commerce, with the kind of creative autonomy that allowed him to deliver harsh truths in a pictorial style all his own, none of this guaranteed him public success.
And sure enough, the work flopped. His career seemed stalled. The reality, as the executives in charge of the Hollywood “dream factory” well knew, was that the public wanted more uplifting and triumphant myths.
Benton learned his lesson. He toned down his more generalized criticisms, and to some extent got with the Hollywood program. He distilled, clarified, and dramatized his imagery. He traveled widely, observing everything with sharp, appraising eyes. He developed a feeling for picturesque and humorous details, and for various human types.
In this last particular, a row of portraits demonstrates his success. Benton gives us a “Yankee Driver,” gaunt and straight-backed at the wheel; an old, impassive “New England Editor” writing a rejection letter at his Spartan desk; three politicians pouring liquor as they cut a backroom deal in “Preparing the Bill”; and an old, gray-bearded African-American man called “Aaron” in a tattered coat, clutching a stick with both hands.
Benton was open, meanwhile, to Hollywood’s overtures. He was invited to create imagery to help publicize John Ford’s 1940 film of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” He accepted. If it’s true, as Bailly reports, that Ford was influenced by Benton’s imagery as he thought about how he wanted his film to look, it’s also the case, as my colleague Ty Burr has pointed out, that Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland tried to reproduce the documentary look of Depression-era photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Pop were still well in the future — but how promiscuous visual culture was already becoming!
Rivalry often comes down to knowing when to engage and when to withdraw. You take on another artist, or another medium, because you want to surpass him, her, or it. But at some point, win, lose, or draw, you have to leave the battlefield.
When it came to his rivalry with the movies, Benton never quite figured that out, perhaps because he was too much a part of them, and they of him. His fame, his ambition, his lifelong fascination with moviemaking wouldn’t allow for a withdrawal. He continued to make fascinating pictures, but they were increasingly kitsch and propagandistic — and, measured against the movies, they mostly come off second-best.
Meanwhile, his most famous student, Jackson Pollock, had struck out on his own and found a whole new way to triumph over the movies: Scowl like James Dean, pour paint onto canvas like a man possessed, and leave the arena early.
They made a movie all about him.
“ AMERICAN EPICS: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood”
At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. June 6 through Sept. 7.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.