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AMERICA IN ACTION, AS ARTIST SEES IT
But Critics Disagree Over Thomas Benton's "Too Realistic** Treat ment of Modern American Life. IP you want to see lite In action all you have to do is look at the Benton murals. It Is all there. People drinking, dancing, singing, playing craps, pitching hone shoes, driving mules, forging furnaces, getting religion, making love Name your ticket and Thomas Benton win paint you a picture. For Benton, who has been acclaimed as one of the world's greatest painters of mu rals, has come so close to realism that people began to ask where he had learned so much when his latest series, "The Arts of life in America," was unveiled not so long ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It isn't accidental at all that Benton in dulges in pictures of people doing things as the spirit moves them. He got the urge to do it when he was a barefoot youngster out in Missouri. His father decided that it would be much wiser if his son studied law. The father was an attorney. So were most of the men in the family. Benton thought the matter over while he was growing up in NeoEho. He had no desire to paint pictures of round, red apples and wild Thomas Benton, the artist. pink rows, such as hung in the neighbors' parlors. Making out briefs in a law office would be better than that, he thought. n\ A/HEN I was IS I joined a surveying gang VV in Missouri." he reminisce*. T grew tired of itr though. When I was 1? I applied for a job on a little Missouri paper. I wanted to be a cartoonist "The editor took me to a window and asked me to look at a town character who was loafing next door. "'See what you can do about drawing him, and if it suits me I'll give you a Job, be said. "Evidently it suited, for he took me on and I was assigned to draw town characters at their occupations." The cartooning, which served as a basic prep aration for the reproductions from life that Benton does today, didn't please hi* family. They persuaded their son to put aside his sketches and go to a military school near St Louis. He stayed four months. By that time his father decided that his chances at the presi dency were slender anyway, and maybe It would be better to let the boy be an artist. BENTON attended the ArUau' School in Chi cago, and then studied in Prance for four years. In 1912 he returned to tbe United States. He was only 33. He did portrait* and designs for tbe movies. Then tbe war cane along. "I was given a post in the Intelligence De partment at Norfolk, where I was to make drawings of tbe manipulations taking place at that center," he says. "It was a good break. I had been merely painting pictures before. Now I saw blimps, airplanes, machinery In operation, and had to catch Ha spirit.'' He caught the spirit so well he was asked to give an exhibition. "From then on my interest in American scenes began," the tale goes. "In 1919 I began to construct a history of the United States, lay ing stress oil the change of characters and en vironment. It cost too much. I had to aban don it." But he didnt a'ive up his idea. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to show the progression of historical and oultural development in the United States through his gay pictures. He wanted to use colors, rhythm, Jaa, noise, solitude, loneliness—anything that urnft needed. "Pure unreflective play," he calls it. His chance came. Now he could <fc> a series Mural depicting "The Arts of Life in America," painted for the Whitney Museum of American Art by Thomas Benton. of pictures, dramatic, vital, story-telling I The New York Public Library had asked for murals which would present New York history. There were to be 22 pictures in the series. But when the artist finished the last one he was tcld that they weren't wanted. He didnt say anything, fee took them home and hung them up in his studio, where they still decorate the high walls. But he gritted his teeth even while his eyes laughed. Some place, some time, somehow, somebody would hang his murals showing the progression of American life! Until then— So he kept right on getting up at 6 o'clock svery morning and working until 10 every night. He wasn't always sketching. There was much research to be done. Every Summer he took his sketch book and knapsack and started across the country, just as any student artist might have gone bum ming. When he caw a character typical of a phase of life, he sketched him. First he got acquainted. It is necessary to know your subject If you are going to find out just why he is pitching horseshoes or fishing or singisg a spiritual, he says. Otherwise the painting may he nice—bat it wont be a picture! ■ VA/AY back in 1S19 Benton had formed the V V habit of sketching the people he saw on the sidewalks of New York. His pilgrimages through America were Jn line with this mood. "The New School for Social Research asked for murals showing the jazz age." he explains. "I did the series. I had so much material left over that I was prepared when I was asked to do the series of murals on the arts of life for the Whitney Museum. All his life had been a preparation. It had started that day he looked through the drug store window and sketched the village charac ter for the little Missouri paper. Today bis murals are world-famous, and he is the talk of the art world. "Ttx> vital, too realistic," some say. "But It's healthy and strong and robust," they all agree. NOW his whole dream is coming true. He always wanted to show the complete pro gression of American history in a series of murals. It can be done by depicting just one State, he says. Indiana Is giving him his chance to do just what he has wanted to do. He has been commissioned by the Indiana World Fair Commission to do the murals that are to compose the whole Indiana exhibit at the World Pair. This is the first time that a State has ever given such a commission to an artist, who It could be sure would be utterly unconventional, he asserts. "I must have leeway when I work," he in sist*. ' I can't be restricted." If It's a blues singer making love to a Broadway playboy, a lustful butter-and-egg One of the strikingly vivid panels of modern American life, from the murals at the New School for Socisd Remarch. He went into Arkansas when be wanted to sketch people who would fit into the pictures of the days of Andrew Jackson. He knew that be would find Americans there In certain rural sections who hadn't changed very much. So it went. Sketching, sketching sketching! Some day 1 Three years ago another chance came. This time it materialized. But he wouldn't have been discouragad if it hadn't. He was going to have an opportunity to tell the story of American history in his own way some day, he had always said. If this didn't go through, there would be some other way. But it did go through, this time, and be promptly made the most of it. man fi|ta| Us dine for a dance, a gM ar ranging a ootffure, or something about prohl bitioo. Ion, comic atrip* or bostansa. be it going to depict It his w*jr. nth* uta of HI* are the popular arts and ' are undisciplined," be maintains. "They run into pore unrefiective play. "Hie real subject of this group of murals at tbe Whitney Museum—the group which has caused so much comment—is really a con glomerate of things experienced in America; tbe subject is a pair of pants, a hand, a face, a gesture, some physical revelation of intention, a sound, even a song. "Tbe real subject is wh^t an individual has known and felt about things encountered in a . real world of real people and actual doings." American art is growing more realistic and lew photographic, Bentcn declares. Artists are going deeper into their subjects rather than relying on a surface acquaintance. A cotton picker in a Georgia field, a cow hand on a Texas ranch, a hurdy-gurdy player on a Manhattan street—you must know them it you are going to paint them, be affirms. Benton is a recognized authority as a lec turer and teacher of art. He taught the his tory of art and similar subjects at the Art Students' League for seven years. For one Winter he was a member of the teaching staff at Bryn Mawr, and two years a lecturer at Dartmouth. He also taught at the New School for Social Research. It is his belief that the character and en vironment of any period usually suggest the artist's treatment of his subject. The person alities in the sacred Renaissance paintings va ried according to the nationality of the painter, he asserts. He mentions the point, he adds, "mainly for those who have notions about the traditional dignity of mural art." What Is It ? THERE is k creature In the world which ku do nose, eyes, ears, or feet. It digs tunnels although it has no paws or snout. It can crawl backward as well as forward. It breathe* through its skin. Can you guess what it tof Right you are. It's an earthworm. Do jw know why the early bird catches the worm? It is because earthworms come out at night to feed, and sleep during the day. Although they have no eyes, they dislike the daytime because their skin is sensitive to light, so when the tun gets up the worm goes to bed. That's why the bird which sleeps late is likely to hare to go without any breakfast. Although the earthworm seems to possess' no tools with which to dig, it is a wonderful tunneler. You may have wondered how so soft • creature could dig its way into the hard ground It eats Its way. It works for all the world like a ditch-digger on a small scale; it swallows the dirt and passes it entirely through its body. The earthworm is smarter than it looks. IW body can feel the slightest Jarring of the earth, and you will have to tiptoe very carefully to come upon It before it crawls into its burrow. It knows enough to conceal Its home. Yew may have noticed small bunches of leave* standing up in holes in the ground, and won* dered how they got there. They were the earth worm's way of hiding the doorway to its house. It drags the leaves into the top of tho tunnel, small end first, and pulls in enough to ptug the opening. When the weather is warm the earthworm lives close to the surface; when it becomes oold it sinks Its tunnel deeper and deeper until It is safe from the frost. In Winter, worms have larger caves floored with tiny seeds or pebbles upon which they rest. Sometimes sevw end arorma roil *p in balls aad sleep In the hum den. f ParthwonM jm an. good friends of men. *rt*T 'fexgera j>towlng sround r nelp plants to grow "at the roots. Why Not f Hie little girl «u reading laboriously. "See Mary and the lamb," ahe read slowly. "Does Mary love the Iamb, button-hook?" "Why do you say button-hook?" asked the teacher. "Picture of a button-hoc* here," replied tne child, pointing triumphantly to the question mark.