Jackson Pollock is a pioneer in abstract expressionist art and is known as an action-painting artist. He became an artist following his brother whom is regarded as a father. Jackson Pollock learns painting while doing chores in a teacher’s home. There are many stories about Jackson Pollock, but we are curious about the mentor who taught him. Who raised this famous artist? It's Thomas Hart Benton, an artist whose success was overshadowed by Jackson Pollock's reputation. Benton was a regionalism painter with a high reputation in the United States. While studying art in Europe, he pursued modernism in the start. But he became a member of the American regionalism movement and actively rejected modernism. His paintings reflect the circumstances of his life and society.
Benton was born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, and was raised by his uncle, a senator, and his father, who served as a soldier, lawyer and congressman. He has been interested in politics and society since he was a child, as the family engaged in political activities and mingled with politicians. But after the family's financial situation became difficult, he made a living by illustrating articles. His father's death led him to look back on his life and it made him focus on regionalism. He captured images of life, such as farmers' lives and cities busy with industrialization, rather than being influenced by past styles. This experience served as a stepping-stone for Benton to face the realities of American society. When Benton faced life as an object of painting, the situation in the United States was chaotic because of the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression is an economic crisis that resulted in huge unemployment and a sharp fall in consumption. In addition, social discrimination and poverty were getting worse. Industrialization generates prosperity, but it also deepened internal conflicts, creating an uneasy social atmosphere. In this context, artists focused on the changing times rather than pursuing the ideal world. Benton concentrated on using realistic expressions to help anyone who watched the paintings to understand and empathize with the situation. Besides, he highlighted the characters, rising fear and awareness of war, while at the same time criticizing such situations. Let's see what he wanted to express and the society he described through his paintings.
‘Boomtown’ was painted in 1927. It’s a picture of modernization, at that time, the biggest social issue. After the Civil War, companies were established and the economy was growing, but at the same time industrialization created other problems like environmental pollution and the divide between rich and poor. The painting features buildings, cars, black smoke and factories, a direct reference to the city in development. It represents the other side of the economic revival, including environmental pollution. Telegraph poles emphasized verticality, and mass production of automobiles referred to the destroyed diversity. The people in the painting are busily moving around in a developed city that feels like an artificial space.
‘Haystack’ was painted in 1938. It described farmers’ life. There were farming villages behind industrialization. Rural areas were shunned by urban development and factories, and many people left rural areas. Benton took a positive view of the rural life of the people who stayed behind and put this feeling in this picture. This painting made right after the Great Depression expresses self-satisfaction and the fullness of self-sufficiency. Because it contains only images of farmers, the way they live come to mind as well as the crops they get in proportion to their labor. The painting also projects honesty, opposite from greed and pretense of the industrial age. Benton uses a circular structure and warm-feeling colors to idealize labor with emphasis on the target.
Painted in 1924, ‘Slaves’ deals with slavery and racism. At that time, racism and equality were emerging. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft tried to unite a divided American society, but failed. The next elected President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, continued his efforts for unity with a policy of ensuring equal opportunities for everyone. However, discrimination against workers, blacks, ethnic minorities and women remained. Wilson also lost public confidence because of contradictory stance of limiting women's right to vote. The social situation of discrimination against these weak persons is shown in this painting. It features black and white people, and a white man is beating several black people with a whip. The victims are not acting or preparing to fight back against white people's unjust behavior. They are taking only a defensive posture. The lack of proper attire also shows that there was no respect for black people's human rights. The light and shade in the painting technically maximize the conflict between the characters. In the background, racism has become widespread throughout the United States and is depicted by placing objects commonly seen in everyday life, such as churches, hills and clouds.
Thomas Hart Benton tried to express people's lives through his art to inform and criticize the other side of society at that time. The society he criticized through his paintings has survived to this day. Problems such as racism, the gap between urban and rural areas due to industrialization, environmental pollution, and excessive entertainment remain to be solved. We should also pay attention to the circumstance, rather than just pursuing modernity, as Benton turned into a regionalism painter while pursuing modernism and addressing social problems through his paintings. He is calling on all of us to join in, get informed and solve problems we encounter to the best of our ability. This attitude will ensure future generations do not face the same problems.