Friday, October 02, 2009

Painter of Music: Thomas Hart Benton at the Frist

Thomas Hart Benton in Story and Song is the name of an exhibit that just opened at the Frist Center in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a good title, and a good place for Benton’s works to be shown. Much of his work had to do with American music and with the people, landscapes, and day to day history that frames much of what we know as folk, country, and bluegrass music.

Have you seen Benton’s work? Probably so. It’s widely used in books and shown in art history texts as an example of what’s called regionalist painting, the region in this case being the American midwest. Benton's last work was The Sources of County Music, which hangs today in The Country Music Hall of Fame, just down the Street and around the corner from the Frist. He also illustrated three of Mark Twain’s works, including Life on the Mississippi.

Whether he was following story or song, Benton was known for getting down to the basics, and for wanting to tell the whole story -- commissioned to do a series of murals on Indiana’s history, he included reference to the Ku Klux Klan, which did not sit well with many; likewise, his southern pieces often contain images from slavery times.

Whatever he has as subject, one thing you get from Benton is a vibrant sense of people living their lives, and that as straightforward as his work may sometimes appear, there’s a lot more going on than what you take in at first glance. Music is often part of that, whether as a direct subject or as part of the day to day goings on and rhythms of life he painted. Benton himself loved music and was an accomplished harmonica player

The exhibit at the Frist has two sections, one about Benton’s work illustrating stories, and the other about his music related work. Benton, who was born in Missouri and studied in Chicago and Paris, was known as a leader of the American regionalist movement. He was also a teacher, and one of his students was Jackson Rollock, who took painting in a very different direction -- abstract expressionism.

The intersections between the visual and the musical often come up along the music road. If you’re anywhere near Nashville in the next few months, drop in and see what you think of Benton's take on music and story. The exhibit opens today and will be up through 31 January, 2010.

While you’re there, take in the other always intriguing exhibits at the Frist -- it’s an exhibiting rather than a collecting gallery, so things are always changing. Another one going now features the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, another painter involved with place, in her case the American south west.

From the Frist Center, information about The Thomas Hart Benton Exhibit. It's part of the Nashville Public Library's city wide celebration of Mark Twain, as well

music to go along with these ideas
Wilderness Plots: the dvd

Songs of Homecoming, to Scotland and other places

songs of place: Canada

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, thanks for letting me get to know a unique and creative musician!

11:42 AM  
Blogger BIKE LADY said...

PBS and Ken Burns (the filmmaker getting a lot of publicity this month for his work on the National Parks) did a documentary on this guy. Here's the link for your readers:

9:35 AM  

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