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County Politics
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Photographing the Bull

 

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri. His father was a lawyer and United States congressman and his great-uncle (his namesake) was one of the two first United States Senators from Missouri. As a teenager, he worked as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper, in Joplin, Missouri. In 1907 he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, then left to study at the Academie Julien in Paris, one of the most important art schools in France.

Benton is one of the three most important Regionalist artists, along with Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. He came to prominence in 1932 when he was commissioned to paint the Indiana murals for the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition. His mural resulted in a public outcry (and a Time Magazine cover story for the December 24, 1934 issue) against the unflattering picture that included Ku Klux Klan in their full costume. Shortly afterwards, he began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. Among his students was the future Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings would become famous in the 1950s.

Photographing the Bull

Thomas Hart Benton

American (Midwestern Artist)

1889-1975

Photographing the Bull, 1950

lithograph

Sioux City Art Center Permanent Collection; 998.02

Purchase with funds provided by Alan Fredregill Fund

Benton, Thomas Hart [County Politics]

County Politics

Process

The art center has several of Benton’s lithographs in its permanent collection. Lithographs are drawn in the same way that artists draw other images, and the resulting print creates a picture that is a mirror-image (reversal) of the artist’s original image. Lithograph literally means drawn on stone, and the process of making this type of print reveals this is exactly true: after the artist has made a drawing on the lithographic “stone,” the image is treated to protect it and then the stone is also chemically treated. This process changes the surface of the stone so the image—now almost invisible—will accept the greasy printing ink, and the blank areas—when washed off with water—will reject the ink. This wiping away process leaves ink only in the areas where the artist’s drawing is, allowing it to transfer to the paper when the stone is run through a printing press.

Donor

Purchased with funds from the Alan Fredregill Fund

Historical Context

Benton’s comment to Time in 1941 that lost him his job at the Kansas City Art Institute reveals an extreme dislike and mistrust for museums that is typical of Modern artists in the first half of the twentieth century: “I'd have people buy the paintings and hang them in privies or anywhere anybody had time to look at 'em. Nobody looks at 'em in museums. Nobody goes to museums. I'd like to sell mine to saloons, bawdy houses, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce—even women's clubs.” In place of the museum, Benton values the direct encounter between art and everyday life. This claim is common to the European avant-gardes of this period: the Italian Futurists called for the burning of the museums, the Dada artists demanded an end to art, and the Surrealists denied that their works were even art. The goal of these claims was to shift art out of the domain of the elites in the museum.

The subjects of Benton’s works—common people going about their daily activities—and the realism of his technique are both features that define the Regionalist movement he helped create. His shift to large, public murals for the last thirty-five years of his career is related to his rejection of museums and the creation of valuable objects for the appreciation of an elite audience centered around the museum.