Benton and Pollock as seen by Barbara Rose
With a personal recollection of Thomas Hart Benton appearing on the opposite page, we were delighted to receive the permission of Barbara Rose, art historian, curator, and critic, to preview this brief excerpt (part of a longer passage in Partisan Review, 1985, No. 2) from her forthcoming biography of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, whose teacher was Benton. EMULATING the Mexicans, Benton had already identified mural painting as the form of public art destined to replace the portable easel picture, whose rise was identical with that of the middle class. Benton's polemic in favor of mural art had in fact set the stage for the eventual government patronage of wall painting. The movement to replace easel painting and its pictorial conventions with wall paintings was launched by Benton and art critic Thomas Craven. These murals, like the great fresco cycles of the
Renaissance, were supposed to be collective expressions for the edification of the general public. In his popular book, ``Modern Art,'' first published in 1934, Craven, the leading and certainly the loudest critical voice of the moment in America, identified Benton as one of the four saviors ``who first repudiated the philosophy of Modernism.'' This vile invention Craven defined as ``a French method which, under the dominion of Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and their idolaters, separated art from the living w orld.'' Besides Benton, the other three great anti-modernists, according to Craven, were German Expressionist George Grosz and Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jos'e Clemente Orozco. All were rapidly gaining reputations in North America. The Depression had awakened a new social conscience, and an art of political and moral content was more appreciated than the formal or decorative art of the school of Paris.
Following the example of the Mexicans, Thomas Hart Benton became a muralist and a history painter. Benton, however, was not Marxist, although politics played a large role in his life. Like his friend Craven, he was an ardent populist. For both, this meant espousing the cause of democracy in art, as opposed to the ``elitism'' of the French avant-garde. They believed in representational art that the man in the street could appreciate and rejected the modern idea of an initiated ``happy few.'' Benton's ins istence that art was a political statement impressed Pollock, which made it more difficult for him to make the transition to a more private and subjective art. The means by which he made this transition was through the art that had inspired Benton -- that of the Mexican muralists. Their images, although representational, were not naturalistic or even for that matter realistic.