31 December 2014

America Today

"America Today: City Activities with Dance Hall" Thomas Hart Benton (1930–31)

In 1930, painter Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School for Social Research in New York, to create a mural for the school’s boardroom. The result, “America Today,” is a sweeping portrait of American life in the 1920s.

The New School displayed the mural for 50 years before selling it to AXA Equitable Life Insurance for their New York headquarters (the school's provision when selling was that the mural could not leave the country nor be broken up). In 2012 AXA had to remove the work from their lobby for building renovations; they ended up donating it to the Metropolitan Museum of the Art where it is currently on display in the exhibit “Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ Mural Rediscovered.”

Comprised of ten panels, “America Today” is epic in scope and quite stunning. The colours are rich and varied with aluminum leaf moldings created by Ziegfeld’s designer, Joseph Urban, framing the panels and defining individual scenes. The majority of the panels represent life in different parts of the country: New York, the South, the Midwest, and the West. The largest, “Instruments of Power,” showcases modern technological advances in power and transport while the smallest “Outreaching Hands,” symbolizes the Great Crash with hands holding money across from those reaching out for coffee and bread.

Included are multiple characters—flappers and mothers, farmers and steel workers, preachers and jazz musicians. I particularly liked the panel, “City Activities with Dance Hall,” which shows New Yorkers dancing, going to the movies, and drinking (illegally) while high above them a man on Wall Street watches the ticker tape.

In two nearby rooms, visitors can view Benton's studies for the mural including photographs of people who modelled for some of the figures (interesting note: Jackson Pollock, who was a student of Benton's, posed for his teacher). There are also related works by other artists including photographs by Berenice Abbott and Lewis Hines. Yet nothing compares to sitting in the room with the mural, surrounded by so much colour and life.

“America Today” is on display at the Met through April 19, 2015. For more information, visit here.

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