Liberal Arts Blog — Thomas Hart Benton, “Sources of Country Music” (1975), “A Social History of Missouri”(1936), “Persephone” (1939)
Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Design, Film, and All Things Visual Day
Today’s Topic: Thomas Hart Benton, “Sources of Country Music” (1975), “A Social History of Missouri”(1936), “Persephone” (1939)
Yesterday, I started to watch the 2019 Ken Burns eight-part documentary history of country music. It begins with a discussion of a painting by Thomas Hart Benton completed at age 84, just before his death in 1975, for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Intrigued, I decided to follow up with a post. Research led me to two other paintings — “Persephone” (1939) which apparently caused quite a scandal, and the “A Social History of Missouri” in the lounge of the Missouri State Capitol. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
THE GOSPEL CHOIR, THE BANJO, THE GUITAR, THE FIDDLES, THE LAP DULCIMER, THE BARN DANCE, THE STEAMBOAT AND THE TRAIN (1975)
1. “It’s the closest thing visually to what country music sounds like.” (from Ken Burns documentary)
2. “Country music rose from the bottom up from the songs that Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labors and songs they sang to each other on the porches and in the parlors of their homes when the day’s work was done.”
3. “It came from the fiddle tunes they danced to on Saturday Day Nights to let off steam and from the hymns they chanted in church on Sunday mornings.”
NB: Do you have a favorite mural?
THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF MISSOURI (1936) — a “multiplicity of subjects” — “his masterpiece”
1. “The mural crosses three walls of the large rectangular room. The north wall depicts Pioneer Days and Early Settlers, the east wall displays Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri, and the south wall exhibits scenes from St. Louis and Kansas City. Each wall is bisected by a marble-framed doorway, an architectural framework that Benton extends throughout the mural panels by segmenting off vignettes of Missouri life with frame-like divisions.”
2. “Atop each door, the mural features associated mythologies, namely Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Jesse James’ railroad stickups, and the tragic story of Frankie and Johnny.”
3. “Benton memorialized the working man as societies’ driving force while highlighting inequities associated with the proliferation of industrial technologies and city living. He depicted African Americans and Indigenous Americans through the lens of exploitation by slave traders and settlers. He also included Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast; this subject, and the inclusion of a woman changing her infant’s diaper, was controversial and elicited calls for the mural’s destruction. Thomas Hart Benton committed much of the next decade to mounting a defense of the mural, which he considered his definitive magnum opus.”
PERSEPHONE (1939) — the origin of winter, the painter as Pluto (Hades), ruler of the underworld
1.”Thomas Hart Benton’s Persephone recasts a Greek myth in a contemporary, rural guise. Beautiful Persephone was abducted by Hades, who imprisoned her in the underworld. Her father Zeus negotiated her release for all but four months of every year. During this period her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, denied the growth of all flora, thus creating winter.
2. Benton’s Persephone appears as a sunbathing farm girl. Hades is shown as a lustful, aging farmer with a rickety cart for his chariot. His facial features appear similar to Benton’s own, although he used a local model.”
3. “The creek-side setting suggests an arcadian landscape as well as a likely venue for
skinny-dipping. Shamelessly naked, Persephone evokes Old Master female nudes in
addition to modern pin-ups.”
FOOTNOTES — Benton’s family background, training, anti-modernism
1. His father was Maecenas Benton, a four-term US Congressman nicknamed “the little Giant of the Ozarks” whose own great uncle was Thomas Hart Benton, was “one of the first two US Senators elected from Missouri.”
2. With his mother’s but not his father’s support, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Academie Julian in Paris. He served in the US Navy during World War I.
3. “Along with Grant Wood and John Stuart Curry he was at the forefront of the Regionalist art movement.” A self-proclaimed “enemy of modernism,” he focused on “naturalistic and representational work.”
THE LAST FOUR YEARS OF POSTS ORGANIZED THEMATICALLY ARE AVAILABLE HERE:
#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20
Please share the coolest thing you learned recently or ever related to art, sculpture, design, architecture, film, or anything visual.
This is your chance to make some one else’s day. And to cement in your own memory something cool or important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that is close to your heart.