Originally created 02/08/98

Hart work

Thomas Hart Benton's paintings, drawings and lithographs look simple.

Workers cutting sugar cane, three men fishing in a river, a man playing a fiddle are common, seemingly simplistic scenes captured by the American artist.

But examination of Mr. Benton's work reveals a complicated subtext.

"The lines in his work, the use of repetition, always come out at me," said Patricia Moore, curator of education for the Morris Museum of Art. "His use of lines creates a real sense of movement," she said, tracing the lines of billowing steam of a wheat thrasher, clouds heading the same direction, and rows of wheat in the 1941 lithograph Threshing.

The Morris is the first stop on a national tour for On the Road with Thomas Hart Benton: Images of a Changing America. The exhibit, which opens Thursday and runs through May 4, will feature more than 20 paintings and more than 55 drawings.

Mr. Benton, a painter, muralist, printmaker and illustrator, gained prominence during the 1920s and '30s.

He became known for the huge murals he painted on commission, including the 14-foot-high, 250-foot-long work depicting the social history of Indiana that he painted for the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.

"By the mid-'30s, he was America's best known artist," said Richard Gruber, deputy director of the Morris Museum. "Between '29 and '35, he was the rising star."

Mr. Benton was the first artist to have work featured on the cover of Time magazine, in 1934.

He gathered material from real life and popular culture. His paintings were of city dock workers, jazz musicians and boxers. They depict religious themes, pastoral settings and regional crafts.

He roamed the countryside, including Georgia and South Carolina, and used his sketch pad to document what he saw.

Dr. Gruber hopes the exhibition will show how drawing -- one of Mr. Benton's greatest talents -- was combined with travel -- one of his greatest passions.

Many of his pieces have a three-dimensional quality. The sickle-wielding figures toiling away in Sugar Cane, an oil and tempera painting on canvas, are realistic, yet they are distorted, which lends to a sense of movement.

Mr. Benton, whose father was elected to Congress as a Populist in 1897, also engaged in social and political commentary through art.

The 1934 painting Plowing it Under, showing a black farmer plowing rows of cotton, is a stab at the government's increasing intervention in the control of land, Dr. Gruber said.

"This painting was done within a year of the New Deal, which asked farmers to plow under their crops to drive prices up," said Ms. Moore.

Mr. Benton viewed the country as a series of cultural and geographic regions, Dr. Gruber said. The exhibit will reflect those divisions, as the pieces are broken down into six display areas: cities, mountains, rivers, the West, Missouri and the Midwest and the South.

Works in the exhibition, many of which have never been displayed before, were selected from the artist's estate in Kansas City, Mo.

Dr. Gruber, who did his dissertation on Mr. Benton and is talking with a publisher about writing the artist's biography, will present a slide lecture at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The Morris Museum has planned a variety of talks, concerts, presentations, and other activities to coincide with the exhibit.


What: On the Road with Thomas Hart Benton: Images of a Changing America

When: 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, opening reception and slide presentation

Where: Morris Museum of Art, 1 10th St.

How much: Free for members, $5 for nonmembers

Phone: 724-7501


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