COLUMBIA — History books can’t tell the story of Missouri in the same way that the paintings, drawings and lithographs of native son Thomas Hart Benton show the state in the 1930s.
Looking at Benton’s works is “a way of getting a glimpse of Missouri history from the lens of experience,” said Kristin Schwain, associate professor of American art at MU. His work also gives viewers a glimpse of the art that people appreciated in the 1930s.
“His work was so popular — it was how Missourians saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen,” Schwain said.
Through early August, an exhibition of Benton’s work is on display at the State Historical Society of Missouri at MU.
“Benton is a key figure in Missouri’s culture, artistically and politically,” Schwain said.
Many of Benton’s works were inspired by the Missouri landscape and people. “Missouri Farmyard,” “Flood,” “Investigation” and “A Drink of Water” — all on display at the exhibition — are lithographs for which Benton used the Missouri landscape and that of neighboring states such as Illinois and Arkansas.
To create a lithograph, Benton drew directly onto a lithography stone with a crayon-like tool. The image was then fixed with gum arabic, allowing ink to be spread onto the stone and put into a press for reproduction.
References to the Great Depression and the Great Flood of 1937 are evident in lithographs such as “Investigation,” in which a pair of women look at the damage to their homes from flooding, and “Prodigal Son.” The latter lithograph “is indicative of the destruction people experienced” in the Depression, said Emily Allred, the Benton show’s curator. It shows a young man coming home to a dilapidated house; the fatted calf from the biblical parable of the prodigal son is a skeleton.
Not only did Benton use events to shape his work, he shared his art with the people. “The way that he worked with the lithograph made art accessible to the middle class,” Allred said. Lithographs could be easily reproduced and thus were more affordable than the original pieces.
Because of his portrayal of the social climate, Benton was a storyteller for his time. He was commissioned by The Kansas City Star to cover the Great Flood of 1937 through lithographs.
“His art is supposed to be about human life and about the human condition,” Schwain said. “He really does think about history as a people’s history.”
Benton’s subjects also included farm workers, African-Americans and urban factory workers. While some thought his work to be “nostalgic and comforting, he was criticized for that same quality,” Allred said.
Benton wasn’t quiet about his endeavors, according to Leo Mazow, curator of American art at Pennsylvania State University. Benton participated in interviews, appeared on radio programs and wrote his autobiography, “An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography.”
Benton was rarely far from controversy. “He made his fair share of politically incorrect comments,” Mazow said.
In 1935, Benton was commissioned to paint murals in the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City, and some of the studies he did for them are in the historical society exhibition. The topic of Missouri history was chosen for the murals because “they thought it wouldn’t be controversial,” Allred said. “That wasn’t true.”
Benton wasn’t shy: He portrayed raw images such as Ku Klux Klan lynchings. “He didn’t allow viewers to hide from the past or to sugarcoat it, but instead to look at history in all of its manifestations: good, bad, horrific, weak,” Schwain said.
“These are tales of murders, adultery and dirty diapers,” Mazow said. “He isn’t afraid to put the dirty diapers in the face of the public.”