story by Lauren Leatherby, special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton depicted scenes of the Midwest throughout the 20th century, but in addition to his visuals, something else jumps off the canvases of Benton’s paintings — sound.
University of Arkansas associate professor Leo Mazow’s recently published Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound provides a new take on Benton’s use of sound imagery in his paintings.
“The imagery is full of musical instruments, open mouths, ray lines off of people’s mouths to suggest words or sounds, or people bumping into one another,” says Mazow, who teaches American art history. “You can feel the rustling of the leaves or of the clothing as if you were there,
“Sound is very prominent in the art of Thomas Hart Benton.”
Benton hailed from a family of politicians, including his father, a congressman, and his great uncle, one of the first U.S. senators elected from Missouri. While his family championed the cause of the people through politics, “Benton did this with paint,” Mazow said. “He thought that the most powerful representations of the populace are its folklore and its folk music.”
It was expected that young Benton would continue the family calling, but he gravitated toward painting instead.
“He was something of a politician in paint,” Mazow says.
Preserving folk music became especially important to Benton during the early 19th century as inventions such as radios, cars and televisions threatened to cloud out traditional folklore. Benton himself once famously said, “I count it a great privilege to have heard [the old music] in the sad twang of mountain voices before it died.”
“There are some specific sounds he wants to evoke in his art, because he thinks that sound is everything,” Mazow says. “A lot of this still goes back to his dad and politics. In politics, you always talk about the voice of the people. It’s that voice that he thought these folk songs keep alive, and he recorded them in his paintings to continue keeping them alive.”
Benton’s use of sound imagery in his paintings also stemmed from his personal interest in music. Playing the harmonica occupied much of Benton’s time, and he even developed a harmonica tablature notation system that is still used today.
In paintings such as “Frankie and Johnny,” “Jesse James” and “Wreck of the Old 97,” Benton directly portrays the climax of action in old folk songs. Some of Benton’s other paintings do not show one folk tale in particular but instead depict folkloric elements in general.
Mazow, who has played guitar for years, jokingly calls himself a “self-professed, wannabe musician,” and his musicianship led to his intrigue in Benton’s work. Benton’s use of sound imagery in his paintings represents an intersection of Mazow’s interests in both music and art history. He also became interested in Thomas Hart Benton while studying some of Benton’s work during research for his first book, Picturing the Banjo, which studies the role of banjo in American art from the 18th century to the present.
While many scholars before Mazow have long noted Benton’s interest in music, Mazow’s work sheds new light on Benton’s deep connection with folk music, taking a fresh approach by considering how Benton employs sound imagery to keep folklore alive and the integrity of the people intact.
Since the book’s March 19 release, Mazow has had a book signing at Nightbird Books and presented a June 10 lectured entitled Thomas Hart Benton: Painting the Song” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound, published through Penn State University Press, is available at Nightbird Books and on the Internet.