Thomas Hart Benton Goes to Hollywood
Thomas Hart Benton’s association with the movies has been newly highlighted in an exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, and Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Forth Worth, Texas. The first major exhibition of the artist’s work in more than 25 years and the first to explore the connections between Benton’s art and cinema.
After moving to New York in 1911, Benton began painting sets for silent motion pictures in Fort Lee, New Jersey, otherwise known as the “first Hollywood.” He embraced the dramatic poses and theatrical lighting of the film industry, incorporating these techniques into works that moved cinematically, scene-by-scene in multi-panel compositions. Benton would even build clay models, miniature sets, so he could study the play of light and shadow on three-dimensional shapes and aid him in creating a sense of “deep space” in his canvases.
Perhaps because Benton’s paintings visually echoed motion pictures, in 1937 Life magazine commissioned him to go to Hollywood to paint a mural that would unveil the mysteries of the film industry to its readers. The artist spent a month sketching in Hollywood, mostly at 20th Century Fox Studios. Several movies were being filmed at the time on the lot, including In Old Chicago, a big budget musical. Benton produced over 400 sketches and 40 ink-wash drawings during his sojourn, including Burning of Chicago and Movie Set, two drawings to be offered at the December 14th American and European Fine Art Sale at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. These drawings served as studies for the painting Hollywood (1937-38; Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), a dynamic mural filled with actors, technicians, and directors.
Burning of Chicago depicts a scene from the movie In Old Chicago and served as the basis for the central section of Hollywood. At the time of its release, In Old Chicago was one of the most expensive movies ever made, and the drawing captures the choreographed chaos of an epic movie set of the 1930s. Members of the film crew float on barges or stand hip-deep in water in the foreground, aiming mirrors, microphones, and lights toward the mass of actors and horses attempting to flee the fiery faux-Chicago as it burns in the background. The director is seen on the foremost raft under an umbrella, shouting through a megaphone and dramatically gesturing towards the action.
Movie Set likewise reveals the complexity involved with filming even the most unassuming of scenes, and relates to the left panel of Hollywood. Depicted in the drawing are an elegantly coiffed starlet speaking to an older woman seated at a café table. In front of them and claiming the majority of the pictorial space is the film crew and all its paraphernalia. Men crowd the compact scene, whispering to each other, idly watching the dialogue, or handling the equipment. The strong vertical bases of the boom and light frame what are presumably the director and an assistant, and the boom arm stretches overall to hang above the two actresses, the loci of the action.
Both the Burning of Chicago and Movie Set are integral elements to the larger enterprise of the painting Hollywood. They also reveal an artist intensely interested in the process and mechanics of making movie magic, for both his own art and for that of the big picture of fast-changing America.
The American and European December auction will take place Monday, December 14 in Chicago.
Full Preview Schedule:
Thursday, December 10 | 10am – 5pm
Friday, December 11 | 10am – 5pm
Saturday, December 12 | 10am – 3pm
Sunday, December 13 | 12pm – 4pm