Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle: The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” depict vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color. (J. McMahon • 01/15/24, NY Observer)
I asked my old friend and teacher from the Art Students League, Costa Vavagiakis, master of painting technique himself, to comment on Breton, whom he greatly admires. “Thomas Hart Benton was an intensely erudite progressive who saw the beauty in the need and function of all things… He comes from the lineage of Michelangelo, Cambiaso, Tintoretto and El Greco.”
Each of Breton’s ten panels has a theme. In City Activities With Subway, burlesque dancers on stage balance boxers in the ring along the top while strap hangers commute in anonymity, ignoring one another, while across the canvas lovers make out on a park bench. Down the center, the mass of humanity works and prays and trogs through life, all depicted in the same muscular, flowing style.
Across the room, the Deep South panel shows a world a thousand miles away from big city life. where black men fill bags with cotton and transport the white fluff to a waiting river boat with horse and carriage while white men use machines to do the same job on the opposing side. From both sides the cotton is loaded onto an old paddle steamer boat of the kind that was already part of the past when Benton painted the panel, having witnessed and sketched just such a scene on the Missouri River when he was traveling. Capturing in one panel past, present and future.
Throughout the work, which celebrates the dynamism of the Jazz Age, there are reminiscences of times past, and also of hard times to come. We see biplanes in the sky and giant steam shovels gouging out mountains but we also see ranch hands corralling stock and dead tired laborers bent over pickaxes. Money flows freely as couples dance in elegant nightclubs and sit in cinemas, but the spewing ticker tape machine boxes the looming economic crisis to come.
In a piece about “America Today” for Smithsonian magazine, Paul Theroux wrote: “None of it was fanciful or exaggerated; it is a true portrait of the Jazz Age, which was also the era of intense industrialization in the United States when cotton was king and oil was beginning to gush; of clearing land for the planting of wheat and cotton, the making of steel and mining of coal, when New York skyscrapers were rising and the city was bursting with life.”