Saturday, January 15, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #16 - Departure of the Joads, from the Grapes of Wrath

Departure of the Joads, from The Grapes of Wrath, Thomas Hart Benton, 1939, Lithograph on ivory wove paper, 327 x 470 mm (image), The Art Institute of Chicago

Thomas Hart Benton was a rebel. The men in his family were professional politicians and military men - his great-great grandfather was governor of North Carolina, his great-great-uncle colonel in the Confederate army, his father was a colonel, and Congressman. But Thomas did not follow in the steps of his family, he left military school in Missouri in 1907 to go study at the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually he studied in Paris during a period when Modernism was flourishing. When he returned to New York, he became an art teacher to Jackson Pollock and Rita Piacenza. Pollock is the famous abstract expressionist (who went on to be called "Jack the Dripper") and Rita became Benton's wife. He was in the midst of a variety of styles of art were exploding, but none of them really resonated with him.

When Benton's father fell ill, he returned home to Missouri to sit as he was dying. It became a pivotal moment in his life and he wrote about it in his memoir:

I cannot honestly say what happened to me while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends, but I know that when, after his death, I went back East, I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies...I was moved by a desire to pick up again the threads of my childhood.


So he began painting rural scenes and people from the Midwest and made these images symbols of the struggles and triumphs that happened in these humble places. Benton was at the forefront of a new "ism", this one American - Regionalism - one that is synonamous with the 1930s. He painted a series of murals for the 1932 World Exposition in Chicago depicting the history and culture of Indiana. He did not censor the bad with the good and included images of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross, unemployment lines and labor riots. Though critics railed at these images being so public, Time Magazine put him on the cover and declared him to be one of the definining artists of the time.



Trying to take this subject matter and interest the art scene in New York was another matter. New York was on the cusp of becoming the art center of the world and tastes favored the modernism coming out of Europe, not the rural, earthy images of people and places in America's heartland - it just wasn't sophisticated enough for that scene. He turned his back on New York took a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute and taught and worked until his death in 1975. He is one of the most important artists of his day and his work is still respected as central to the Regionalism movement.

The series he did about The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, include a lithograph entitled Departure of the Joads. There are many ways to make prints (see this excellent explanation called "What is a Print" by MOMA); a lithograph print has the image drawn on stone or metal instead of being etched into metal.

This lithograph illustrates a scene from the Grapes of Wrath, the moment that the Joad family is preparing to leave the poverty they faced in Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in order to find a better life in the rich fields of California. The image is printed in black and is rich in tones of grey between areas of black and white. The crescent moon is about in the center of the print and lights up part of the sky while the other half remains dark.

One detail of Benton's style is the curving lines you see everywhere: the ground, the clouds and even the figures undulate which creates a sense of movement. The house, clouds and logs all lead your eye to the family - even the light, moonlight sky highlights them in their departure activities. Not all of the family members are glad about this move - the women and Grampa (who sits forlornly by the door of the shack) look dejected and powerless about the decision. Ma Joad embraces Granma to support her in her decision to leave with the family, leaving Grampa behind - he refuses to leave. The scene is packed with a lot of emotion, but the artist puts almost no facial features in the characters, and relies on the body language and poses to tell the viewer what is happening.

Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and one of the movie studios, 20th Century Fox, jumped on the book to use for a movie version. Benton was commissioned by the studio to produce the images to promote the film. Five of the artworks were portraits of the characters, but The Departure of the Joads was the sixth work he made and turned out to be the most powerful and long lived. It was enlarged to billboard size and he also reproduced it in color as a painting. It was also included in its original form in the 1940 edition of the novel.

American people across the nation identified with this powerful image - it reflected the hard times they had been through with the Great Depression and the feelings so many people felt - anxiousness, sorrow over broken dreams but a tentative optimism that is so characteristic of American people. The road represents the future and a journey to a better life. His image represents both spectrums - Grampa's inability to forge ahead and embrace change alongside Granma's hesitancy and anguish about the choice she is making. But the men of the Joad family have the courage to carry the family ahead. All of these emotions permeated the country in the 1930s and this image captured the essence of an important historical period.

On a personal note, I was speaking to my own students Friday about the hardships that this country is experiencing now. We talked about other periods of hardship our young country has gone through. This image is a powerful one today showing the characteristics of the people in this country that have made it great: vision, determination, hard work, sacrifice and grit. One of my students how long this current period of hardship would last, 5 yrs? I don't know the answer, but I have faith that if we pull together, love and support each other, we can come out of this stronger than ever.

Thomas Hart Benton self portrait, 1972

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ms. Miller for your succinct history of this piece and the career of THB. Having only just read "The Grapes of Wrath" at age 58, I'm in awe of the power expressed in this piece, like many before me.

Joyce said...

2/20/13

Good job Ms. Miller. This is a difficult subject in the best of circumstances, especially when we are all experiencing our own privations. Your description is admirable, and your focus on this piece well done.

Illustration is an important aspect of understanding what we read and the impact (visual, social, historical) on how it was viewed and thought about in its own time.

Joyce K. Schiller
Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum

Joyce said...

2/20/13

Good job Ms. Miller. This is a difficult subject in the best of circumstances, especially when we are all experiencing our own privations. Your description is admirable, and your focus on this piece well done.

Illustration is an important aspect of understanding what we read and the impact (visual, social, historical) on how it was viewed and thought about in its own time.

Joyce K. Schiller
Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum