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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Power of art

The symmetry of Thomas Hart Benton's mural at the Power Vista balances the Iroquois and Europeans, who are also evenly matched in stature, equipment and clothing.
When I was a child, we used to take field trips to the Niagara Power Vista. This is a glorified observation deck over the Niagara River. (Back in the day, we actually saw one of these behemoth turbines at rest in the bottom of its deep chute, which was a terrifying experience to a child with imagination.)

Among the attractions was a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. While other Benton murals are being transferred to major museums, this one sat for years in direct sunlight, fading. In honor of the Power Vista’s 50th anniversary, it’s been restored.

Father Louis Hennepin discovering Saint Anthony Falls, Douglas Volk (1905). The difference between Benton’s and Volk’s characterization of the Native people is striking.
Thomas Hart Benton established his reputation in the 1930s with five murals that championed a new American art movement known as Regionalism. His was the most well-known voice of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) mural program. He was the first artist ever featured on the cover of Time magazine (in 1934).

The History of Water, Thomas Hart Benton, 1930. This was executed for a drugstore in Washington DC in 1930, but was removed shortly thereafter and stored in the basement. It was rediscovered in 1985. After being verified as a long-missing work by Benton, it was put up for auction at Sotheby's and is currently with Vivian Kiechel Fine Art in Lincoln, Nebraska.
His Power Vista mural depicts the Belgian missionary Fr. Louis Hennepin blessing Niagara Falls in the winter of 1677. Those who know and love the Falls recognize the topography, as stylized as it is. What I most admire is the respect Benton showed to Hennepin’s Iroquois guides. The Iroquois were far from savages. Not significantly behind the Europeans of the time, they quickly adopted what technology they didn’t have. They were mercantile and warlike, and Benson paints them and their European counterparts as equals.


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