Benton’s hellish visions of World War II on display


Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘Starry Night’ from the ‘Perilous Visions’ exhibition. Historical Society of Missouri image

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – A collection of Thomas Hart Benton paintings highlighting the destruction of World War II are on display as a set for the first time in nearly two decades.

The Columbia Missourian reports that the “Perilous Visions” exhibition features the eight-painting “Year of Peril” series and two others from the famed Missouri artist. They’re hanging for now at the State Historical Society of Missouri headquarters at the University of Missouri’s Ellis Library. The collection will be on permanent display once the society moves into its new home.

Benton was spurred to paint the bloody, fire-themed war collection while giving a lecture in Cincinnati on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Chicago-based pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories purchased eight of the paintings from Benton in 1942. The company had intended to donate the paintings to the federal government, but the government decided not to take them. That led Abbott Laboratories to give them to the State Historical Society, curator Joan Stack said.

At a time when artists were subsidized to create war propaganda, Benton crafted a series that didn’t heroically depict war, Stack said. Rather, he emphasized Americans’ fear of war, the hell it unleashes and the complexities it involves. Benton’s paintings are “national treasures that help us better understand our past,” Stack said.

Perhaps the most debated, controversial piece in the collection is Negro Soldier. African Americans were rarely shown in World War II propaganda images during that period, but Benton decided to include them in his series on the war, Stack said.

Benton defended the hellish image in his Year of Peril booklet. “Evil and predatory forces are always within us, in all places, at all times. Humanity must then rise up and tear their evil out of them and kill them.” The artist said America must defeat the evil of its enemies, even if that means succumbing to their level of destruction.

With the State Historical Society’s expansion, viewers will be able to appreciate the paintings in a different light, from a better distance with more space between the paintings and higher ceilings.

“(We’ll) do them justice in the new building,” Stack said.


Information from: Columbia Missourian,

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AP-WF-09-30-18 1614GMT