Thomas Hart Benton: Vertical Composition, Energy Fields, and Space through Size

Thomas Hart Benton  seems to hold one or more of the keys to my attempts to consciously understand my own painting processes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Boomtown, 1927 –1928*

As I noted here and here, I am concerned to find that sweet spot, the riparian zone of visual art, where space becomes place, but is not yet the allotted, monocular camera’s eye view.¬† I like painting things that are complex, without central focus, un-scenic, if you will. I am interested in multiple viewpoints, in putting more rather than less into my plein air work and studio paintings, and to find a way to incorporate depth that doesn’t depend upon linear perspective. I want a material space that is representational but not¬† realistic.

All grand abstractions and perhaps easier to say than to understand and certainly easier to understand than to achieve on a regular basis.

Enter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton hove into my sights through a Ken Burns documentary on Netflix, after which I ordered his two autobiographies from the library and found some other images as well as critical writings that I read. I thought (and still think) of him as a social realist; the New York critics saw him as a “regionalist” (and they did not mean that as a compliment); all agree that his greatest achievement was in his murals.

Benton’s murals are massive — they adorn the walls of state capitols and public buildings and tell of historical events and legends of the people that commissioned them. They are collages on a grand scale. They are probably most striking in their depiction of human figures and actions. Benton uses a cubistic style to depict humans engaged in all kinds of activities. He derived his figure making from clay friezes that he made and then painted from. He composed his largest works in clay before he painted them.

And it’s his compositions, not his human figures, that grabbed me. Benton makes enormous collages out of historical events, collages which indicate space and place as well as human activity. His chief problem, as he tells it in his autobiography, was one of composition. His achievement was to compose scenes that are always energetic, moving,¬† surfaces that are readable, lively, representational and yet not anything like photo-realism.

Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937

It is the amount of material and the energy in Benton’s compositions that intrigue me. He claimed to have acquired some of it from studying Tintoretto and El Greco. He says he learned to compose his scenes around vertical “poles” pushing up through his picture space. Those “spaces” aren’t simply large canvases — they are murals that are often interrupted by doorways or arches or go around corners.¬† The vertical “poles,” however, provide basic compositional structures for forms that swirl and connect themselves to other verticalities, many of which are clearly part of the middle or background.

Although Benton often seems to be giving us a view from above, we are also below the scene, some of which falls into our laps. To achieve a sense of space and perspective, he uses size changes and stacks his middle and background figures and scenes up to the top of the picture plane; he can’t depend on linear perspective to indicate space because he’s including too many varied, disconnected scenes, and he needs the entire space to be filled for maximum impact for the murals on which he’s working. He stacks his figures but they are not all on the same plane. They recede in our view, as they get smaller, while the foreground figures tend thrust themselves into our faces. The foregrounds come spilling off the wall while the middle ground, which can contain the primary scene, recedes through size changes.

Thomas Hart Benton, Arts of the West, 1932

So Benton composes in vertical swirls, with lines of energy that connect his visual elements, but retains the sense of space by thrusting his foreground figuration almost out of the lower “canvas” while pushing the middle and background back by stacking and sizing. His motion is circular but expands and contracts to pull in various different times and scenes.

JOU, The Fremont Bridge Addresses the Land, 12 x 24″, 2008 (?)

I can already see how some of this will be useful as I work with my wonky city-scapes. However, I haven’t the foggiest how this analysis can be useful in painting landscapes of the desert, where horizontality reigns. But certainly some of the scenes from the Petrified Forest might be made stronger through such compositional strategies, particularly when aligned with processes used by Jackson Pollock, Benton’s student and friend. But that’s for another post.

June

*[A great description of Benton’s work, and Boomtown in particular, can be found in The Modern West: American Landscapes 1890 –1950 by Emily Ballew Neff:¬† Neff describes the composition of Boomtown this way: “These colorful characters inhabit a remarkable landscape, the crossroad at Main, which is localized into a pie-shaped wedge, spreading into the distance. By employing a bird’s eye perspective, Benton looks down and across the vast landscape, following the Earth’s curve. This effect makes the foreground slip down from the picture plane and fall into the viewer’s lap, and the background appears to stretch endlessly, punctuated by telephone poles, enclosed oil well, and derricks.”]

3 thoughts on “Thomas Hart Benton: Vertical Composition, Energy Fields, and Space through Size

  1. Gee–your analysis is exactly what I want to be reading right now. The book I was reading on Benton last night (I don’t remember what it was called) called him a “modernist”, which also makes sense.

  2. Thanks, Jeri. I have always admired them, too. I need to check out Heaney — I know the name but am not conjuring up any images. Guess I’ll go ask Google:-)

  3. I love the Regionalists. I think you will be able to get the effect you want, as Charles Heaney managed. I aspire to lighten up my landscapes enough to be at Heaney’s level.

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