Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tuman/Benton Exhibition at Truman Library


The Thomas Hart Benton mural at the entrance to the Truman Library

How does a great mural get made?  The new exhibition, “Benton and Truman, Legends of the Missouri Border,” at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence,  documents how two great Missourians, former president Harry S. Truman and artist Thomas Hart Benton, collaborated to create the mural, Independence and the Opening of the West, that adorns the museum’s entrance.  The exhibition, which runs until October 14, focuses on their parallel careers, the process involved in creating that mural, and on a collection of Benton’s paintings and sketches, some of which were loaned by the State Historical Society based in Columbia.

We were given a preopening tour by Clay Bauske, the museum curator who had organized the exhibition.  Workmen were still making minor changes, but the main materials were in place.  Raymond Geselbracht, a special assistant to the director of the library, gave us additional background information particularly on the remarks of Truman and Benton.

            Both Truman and Benton were born in western Missouri in the 1880s and died there in the early 1970s, both were committed Democrats who spoke their minds bluntly and freely, were voracious readers particularly of history, and were great tellers of tall tales. 

            Both spent 1906 to 1921 searching for identities and both gathered strength for their future by serving in WWI.  They built their initial reputations from 1922 to 1940 and gained additional attention during World War II.  Several of Benton’s paintings from that time are on display. 

When they first met in 1949, Truman bantered, “Are you still painting those controversial pictures” and Benton retorted, “When I get a chance.” Later in the 50s Truman had some reservations about the possibility of a Benton mural in the presidential library.  He had not liked the mural that Benton had painted at the capitol in Jefferson City.  An unsent letter in the exhibition says, “I won’t encourage him to do any more horrors like those in Missouri’s beautiful capitol.”  Truman was noted for writing scathing letters when annoyed, which his secretary sometimes delayed in sending allowing him time to reconsider when he had cooled off.  He particularly resented the image in that mural of his mentor Tom Pendergast, a controversial political boss, until he learned that Pendergast had posed for it.   But once past such initial misunderstandings and fueled by a bit of bourbon Truman and Benton had great discussions about art, literature and politics, and Truman approved the library’s choice of Benton as muralist for the project.  

Truman and Benton working on the plans for the mural, Legends of the Missouri Border.

            Then the question became what would the mural in the library include.  They early on decided that it would not be about Truman’s life and contributions to history, but instead would focus on Independence as the starting place of the greatest migration in history as trappers, explorers, and pioneers used it as the stepping off place to the West.

In 1958-1959 Benton toured the West gathering information. He wanted the details of the landscapes, costumes, weapons and facial features to be accurate, because he believed you must draw from life and “the historical detail must be absolutely accurate,” and that if he made a tiny mistake “people come down on me like a ton of bricks.”  

A major part of the exhibition shows the step-by-step process to create the mural.  In a 14-minute film Benton describes the historical background that led to the way he arranged the characters in the painting.  Benton created and played on his harmonica the background music in the film with his daughter Jessie playing the guitar and singing.

At the dedication ceremony in 1961 Truman told the crowd that Benton was “the best muralist in the country,” and that this was his best mural.  Benton noted that Truman “possessed the equipment, as a historian, to be a really disturbing kibitzer if he’d wanted to…Instead, he permitted my work here to develop on its original plan.”  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, the featured speaker, said, “The knowledge of our heroic past will open vistas for them (visitors) into our future.”   An art historian writing 30 years later called it “Benton’s greatest tour de force in the field of history painting.”

 A painting of Harry Truman by Thomas Hart Benton