Immediately after stepping foot in the “Perilous Visions” exhibition, you’re caught off guard by the dark annals of world history.
But you’re also captivated by the destruction that Missouri’s best-known painter depicted on canvas during World War II.
Ten paintings by Neosho-born Thomas Hart Benton are on display as a set for the first time in nearly two decades at the State Historical Society of Missouri in its MU Ellis Library headquarters. The exhibition comprises the eight-painting “Year of Peril” series and two others.
Benton (1889-1975) painted with emotion, and the “Year of Peril” elicits fear, paranoia and grief. The collection will be on permanent display once the society moves into its new home, the Center for Missouri Studies, at Seventh and Elm streets across from Peace Park.
Art ‘must have some significance’
Benton was spurred to paint the bloody, fire-themed war collection while giving a lecture in Cincinnati on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, Dec. 7, 1941. The artist dashed from the podium and spent the next six weeks in his studio to create the paintings, as was recounted in a December 1998 Columbia Daily Tribune feature.
Chicago-based pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories purchased eight of the paintings from Benton in 1942. The company had intended to donate the paintings to the federal government, but the government decided not to take them. That led Abbott Laboratories to give them to the State Historical Society, curator Joan Stack said.
At a time when artists were subsidized to create war propaganda, Benton crafted a series that didn’t heroically depict war, Stack said. Rather, he emphasized Americans’ fear of war, the hell it unleashes and the complexities it involves.
Most of the paintings, created in egg tempera, were exhibited in 1945 in the society’s prior space in Ellis Library’s east wing, Stack said.
Benton’s paintings are “national treasures that help us better understand our past,” Stack said.
His collection is a strong commentary on one of the darkest periods of the 20th century — Benton’s art had a purpose.
“Art to function healthily must have some significance for a whole society,” he said in 1945.
Stack described Benton as the painter who best visualized the fear, anxiety and horror that Americans experienced in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Former President and fellow Missourian Harry S. Truman once called Benton “the best damned painter in America.” The artist gained fame for his prominence in the regionalist movement, some paintings of which are on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Benton developed a strong relationship with the historical society thanks to his friendship with former curator Sidney Larson. Larson assisted Benton on the Truman Library mural. Renowned drip artist and abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock was also a student of Benton, Stack said.
Larson, who taught art at Columbia College for five decades, was probably the reason Benton gave “Embarkation” — one of the two paintings that weren’t part of the “Year of Peril” series — to the State Historical Society, Stack said.
The painting is one focal point of the exhibition because it uses the artist’s trick of the “fourth wall,” in which a subject of the painting looks directly at the viewer. Benton spent time drawing sketches of real-life World War II embarkations, when American soldiers boarded ships to head off to war.
In the left third of the painting stands a forlorn soldier whose facial expression calls for empathy from the viewer, Stack said, and makes one envision the fears that consume the mind of a war-bound soldier.
The ‘need to respond’
The soldier who breaks the fourth wall — supposedly modeled after actor Bill Paxton’s father, John, who grew up next door to Benton’s Kansas City home — leads the viewer to look beyond the surface of the painting and into the scene that Benton so beautifully lays out.
“You feel like you need to respond in some way,” Stack said of the painting, which creates an aura of melancholy as viewers realize that the soldiers might lose everything — family, life, home — if they don’t return from the battlefield.
Benton’s ability to take viewers into his paintings is a byproduct of the immense thought he put into his works, Stack said.
The reasoning and thought that went into what and whom Benton depicted remains mostly unknown, though.
“He is relatively uninterested in interpreting his art for his audience since he believes it will stand or fall according to what it means to each spectator,” Marie George Windell wrote in “As Benton Sees the War,” published in the July 1945 issue of the “Missouri Historical Review.” “If it has validity for him, it has served its social purpose; everyman is his own critic.”
Perhaps the most debated, controversial piece in the collection is “Negro Soldier.”
“Benton must’ve known it made a social impact,” Stack said.
African-Americans were rarely shown in World War II propaganda images during that period, but Benton decided to include them in his series on the war, Stack said.
In November 2017, Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, wrote a letter to the Herald Times Online, in which she described her father as the first American painter to portray African-Americans “as people rather than slaves.”
“In 1942, ‘Portrait of A Negro Soldier,’ not white soldier, showed the sacrifice being made by all of our men in World War II — to bring attention to the African-American as a citizen, a human being, a man willing to die for his country, who deserved and earned the respect of all his countrymen,” Jessie Benton wrote.
Her defense of her father comes at a time when race has returned to the forefront of divisive issues in American society.
“My father was not just an artist; he was a commentator on American society, and an historian through his art,” she wrote. “He was as truthful on canvas as he was as a man, controversial, yes, because he believed in revealing the truth as a pathway to greater understanding among people. And it was his own truth, a personal belief system, truly American, that this country could pull itself out of blind ignorance and darkness and be the ‘melting pot’ of diversity.”
She went on to say her father would abhor the modern white supremacist movement and persecution of people who practice Judaism and Islam by neo-Nazis.
Nothing about the “Year of Peril” collection is soothing or reminiscent of happy times.
“On your beautiful, starry nights, horrible things happen,” Stack said of the painting “Starry Night” during her open house walk-through of the gallery in early September.
Hellish images in a ‘tour de force’
The tour de force “Exterminate” is a focal point of the exhibition, Stack said. The exhibition’s label describes the painting as two U.S. soldiers attacking a “monstrous, racially stereotyped embodiment of Axis military power.” Two torsos make up the upper half of the oppressive half-German and half-Japanese monster.
As in all of the collection’s paintings, fire swirls in the top third of the painting, and a burning plane pummels through billowing smoke next to a life-size American soldier who drives a bayonet into the chest of the Japanese monster. The German half of the monster’s torso carries a gold-plated swastika and sports a Hitler-esque mustache.
Benton defended the hellish image in his “Year of Peril” booklet. “Evil and predatory forces are always within us, in all places, at all times. … Humanity must then rise up and tear their evil out of them and kill them.” The artist said America must defeat the evil of its enemies, even if that means succumbing to their level of destruction.
A viewer of Benton’s “Year of Peril” series told Stack she wouldn’t have wanted her loved ones to go to war if she had seen images like Benton’s depicting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stack said people’s reservations of war are reflected in these paintings.
This is especially true in “Exterminate.” What gets lost in the floor-to-ceiling painting is the utter destruction that lies at the bottom.
During the Sept. 8 grand opening, Stack nearly sat on the floor so she could better view the 97-inch-by-72-inch vertical piece that dominates the left wall of the gallery.
Beneath the gruesome representations of Nazis lie the victims of cruelty, which evokes images of the Holocaust. Benton most likely was unaware of the existence, let alone magnitude, of the Nazi concentration camps, Stack said, but with hindsight, the images might call such atrocities to mind.
Your experience of art changes as you move closer to it, Stack said. With the State Historical Society’s expansion, viewers will be able to appreciate the paintings in a different light, from a better distance with more space between the paintings and higher ceilings.
“(We’ll) do them justice in the new building,” Stack said.
No longer will the dead bodies at the bottom of “Exterminate” be overlooked and ignored because exhibitiongoers can’t view the painting from the distance it was meant to be seen, Stack said.
However, in its current home, the paintings can still be appreciated for their beauty and age. “Exterminate” boasts sections of pentimento, which means you can see the grid underdrawing and traces of previous stages of the process behind the final product. The composition changes throughout, and sometimes it’s not fully developed, as evidenced by a lightly painted shoe.
For those reasons, including the Renaissance technique of using an egg-based tempera with oil glazes, “Exterminate” is a great painting for art students to study, Stack said.
A tourist attraction on its own
Nearly 59 million copies of the booklet reproducing Benton’s World War II paintings were distributed during the war, and some paintings were reproduced as posters.
Parts of Benton’s oeuvre can be found elsewhere in his home state. Some of his well-known Hollywood and regionalist works are on display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. His mural highlighting the good and the bad in Missouri’s social history decorates the walls of the House lounge at the Capitol in Jefferson City.
Stack thinks the “Year of Peril” collection along with other Benton works will draw visitors to the society, particularly once they’re on display at the Center for Missouri Studies. Chris Hart, project manager for the center’s construction, said in an email that a grand opening celebration is scheduled for Aug. 10, 2019.
Until then, you have the opportunity to re-enter the dark depths of our nation’s history and critique the works on your own — as Benton wished.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.