Refreshing relief from the artworld’s standard offerings of “modern” and “contemporary” art has been provided by two of this year’s exhibitions in New York: Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered, which just closed at the Metropolitan Museum; and Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff, at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 3.
Strikingly though they differ in medium, style, and content, both shows demonstrate the power of visual art to stir the heart and mind. They also reveal the ways in which talented artists can build upon tradition to create something vibrantly new. Barbara Wolff’s exquisitely crafted miniatures—made to illustrate religious texts (Psalm 104 and the story of Passover in the Haggadah)—were inspired by medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, examples of which are included in the Morgan exhibition. Benton’s murals, in sharp contrast, are on a secularly heroic scale, loosely emulating the great fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance. They present a dynamic panorama of American life in all its teeming diversity in the Roaring Twenties.
Especially delightful in the Morgan show are Wolff’s images inspired by Psalm 104, “You Renew the Face of the Earth”—a hymn in praise of creation. Her charming depiction of Among the Branches They Sing (see above), illustrating line 12 of the Psalm, includes no fewer than twenty-eight identifiable species of birds—a graphic evocation of nature’s astonishing variety. In The Mountains Rose (line 8 of the Psalm), a giant wave crashes over the upper left border of the image, while jagged gilt-and-silver layers below snow-capped mountains and green hills are studded with prehistoric shellfish and trilobites, whimsically suggesting a scientifically updated interpretation of Genesis. Equally whimsical is Wolff’s evocation of the ancient Egyptian pantheon in Against All the Gods, a page in the Haggadah.
Extensive research and preparation went into both projects. Not for these artists the “spontaneous” expression or mere chance favored by modernists. Wolff, for example, delved into Biblical and Egyptian archaeology, the European tradition of illuminated manuscripts, and the ecology of Israel’s flora and fauna—not to mention drawing upon her own extensive familiarity with botanical and animal illustration. For his part, Benton had traversed the United States, notebook in hand, for four years in the mid 1920s. As reported in an excellent article in Smithsonian magazine,
He went down rivers, up mountains, along country roads; camped and hiked and bunked in farmhouses; into the heartland of farms and confronting the cities of roisterers and skyscrapers-in-the-making, obsessively sketching.
Sketches and paintings included in the Met’s exhibit indicated the truth of Benton’s claim that “Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.”
Another significant commonality between these disparate artists is that neither of them is part of the art historical “mainstream” represented in standard accounts of American art. Barbara Wolff has had a long and very successful career as a botanical and natural science illustrator—a pursuit requiring the dedicated skill in depiction that the artworld mainstream has flouted. Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), after spending his early years first studying in Paris and then as a respected instructor at the Art Students League in New York for a decade, turned his back on those cultural capitals, becoming a leading “Regionalist” painter and an outspoken critic of the art establishment. Most important, despite the ascendancy of abstract art in subsequent years, he never wavered from representation, focusing on the manifold people and places of America that impressed and engaged him. Ironically, one of his art students was Jackson Pollock (he was the model for the sinewy worker in the right foreground of panel entitled Steel)—whose fame in time lamentably eclipsed Benton’s. Perhaps the long-overdue attention to Benton’s work generated by the Met show will help to reverse that unfortunate fact.
Till now, I have never been a fan of Benton’s mannered style, but it is wonderfully apt in this context. Bristling with energy, in unstoppable motion, it spans the gamut of American life in the twenties—from the imposing figure of a cotton picker in Deep South to the muscular heroism of the miner dominating Coal and the curvaceous forms of a subway straphanger and her praying counterpart in the panel encompassing sin and salvation in City Activities with Subway.
While the Wolff exhibition can still be seen at the Morgan (through May 3rd), I greatly regret that I was unable to post this review before the Met’s splendid Benton show closed. However, Met representatives have assured me that the murals will at some point be reinstalled permanently elsewhere in the museum. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it before, put it on your list for the future, for it is a work that, more than some, must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated.
I should add that both Wolff’s and Benton’s projects were the result of commissions by visionary patrons. In 1930, Benton was invited to decorate the boardroom of the New School for Social Research by the school’s co-founder and first director, Alvin Johnson. Though Johnson lacked funds to pay him, Benton considered it a good opportunity at that point in his career, and agreed to do work pro bono if Johnson would supply the eggs needed for his chosen medium of tempera. Just a few years ago, the New York philanthropists Daniel and Joanna S. Rose commissioned Wolff to create The Rose Haggadah and You Renew the Face of the Earth: Psalm 104 for their family, and then generously decided to donate both works to the Morgan’s superb collection of illuminated manuscripts, for the public to enjoy.
Further reading and viewing
- The Morgan’s film, An Illuminated Haggadah for the 21st Century, aptly conveys Barbara Wolff’s mastery of the extraordinarily painstaking techniques involved in manuscript illumination. (Quite a contrast to Andy Warhol, who “didn’t love” any things enough “to want to sit down and paint them lovingly and patiently”!) See also Over Her Shoulder: Illuminating Psalm 104.
- The Rose Haggadah, online exhibition of the entire manuscript.
- “America Today, by Thomas Hart Benton” (slideshow) provides an overview of all the panels, with numerous closeups. See also “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural” (Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History).
- “MetCollects—Episode 9: Thomas Hart Benton’s Mural America Today Comes to the Met” (an 8-minute video) recounts the checkered history and reputation of the work, which is now being seen by Met curators “with fresh eyes.”
- Paul Theroux offers an appreciative and informed account of Benton’s creative trajectory in “The Story Behind Thomas Hart Benton’s Incredible Masterwork,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2014.
- For evidence of the lingering critical bias favoring “advanced art” over Benton’s forthright brand of boldly stylized realism, see Holland Cotter’s “America’s Portraitist” (review of Thomas Hart Benton, by Justin Wolff), New York Times, Sunday Book Review, June 29, 2012.