'America Today' was Thomas Hart Benton's first major mural commission and the most ambitious he ever executed in New York City. 'Thomas Struth: Photographs' features 25 photographs, from his early black-and-white streetscapes made in New York in 1978 to recent and previously unseen works. Featuring more than 50 spectacular robes dating from the 18th century to the present day, 'Kimono: A Modern History' tells the fascinating story of this eloquent garment.
Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered
September 30, 2014–April 19, 2015
The exhibition Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered celebrates the gift of Thomas Hart Benton’s epic mural America Today from AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 2012. Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) painted the 10-panel mural cycle in 1930–31 for New York’s New School for Social Research to adorn the boardroom of its International Style modernist building on West 12th Street. It was commissioned by the New School’s director, Alvin Johnson, who had fashioned the school as a center for progressive thought and education in Greenwich Village. Depicting a sweeping panorama of American life during the 1920s, America Today ranks among Benton’s most renowned works and as one of the most significant accomplishments in American art of the period.
“This exhibition is the culmination of an extraordinary partnership between the Metropolitan and AXA, which donated the mural to the Museum and also serves as the exhibition’s sponsor. For this, we are tremendously grateful,” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum. “The Metropolitan’s presentation of Benton’s great mural will shed new light on this visually and intellectually stimulating landmark in American art of the early 1930s, especially as the Museum will display the mural as the artist originally intended it to be seen. Positioning the mural’s new home in the context of the Metropolitan’s diverse collections, the exhibition also tells a unique story rooted in New York’s own cultural history.”
“The Department of Modern and Contemporary Art is thrilled to debut AXA’s great gift of Benton’s remarkable America Today mural in the American Wing, where the artist’s expansive vision of life in the United States will resonate deeply with John Vanderlyn’s grand panorama, 19th-century genre painting, and Thomas Cole’s philosophical landscapes, among other treasures,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the Museum’s Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art. “The exhibition will also remind visitors that the key themes of Benton’s mural—the heroic proletariat and modern industry—were greatly significant for artists in a contemporary international context, not only in the United States, but also in Mexico, and in France between the world wars.”
The exhibition is made possible by AXA.
America Today was Benton’s first major mural commission and the most ambitious he ever executed in New York City. The exhibition will demonstrate how the work not only marked a turning point in Benton’s career as a painter—elevating his stature among his peers and critics—but in hindsight stands out even more as a singular achievement of American art of the period, one that, among other effects, served to legitimize modern mural painting as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project in the 1930s. Stylistically bold, America Today stands midway between the artist’s early experiments in abstraction, signs of which are still evident in the mural, and the expressive figurative style for which he is best known today. Thematically, the mural evokes the ebullient belief in American progress that was characteristic of the 1920s, even as it acknowledges the onset of economic distress that would characterize life in the following decade. The commissioning of America Today also marked an important episode in international modernism; the great Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco was commissioned to paint a mural in the New School at the same time, and the two artists worked on their projects concurrently.
On view starting September 30 in the Museum’s Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery in the American Wing, the exhibition will be organized into three sections: the first will feature a large selection of Benton’s studies for the mural; the second will present the mural installed in a facsimile of its original space at the New School; and the third will feature related works by other artists, all from the Museum’s collection.
America Today Rediscovered
The keystone of the exhibition—the mural—will be installed in a reconstruction of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom as it existed at the New School in 1931, allowing viewers to experience the mural cycle as Benton conceived it. A highlight of this extraordinary opportunity to view the reconstructed mural in its nearly original setting is the incorporation of elements that were part of the architect Joseph Urban’s modernist aesthetic for the New School building, such as the black and red color scheme he used for the room. Among the mural’s most distinctive features are the aluminum-leaf wooden moldings, which not only frame the mural but also create inventive spatial breaks within each large panel. When the mural was installed at the New School, these moldings echoed the Art Deco details of Urban’s building design.
The 10 panels—most of which loom to a height of seven-and-a-half feet—depict a panoramic sweep of rural and urban life on the eve of the Great Depression. They capture the tension of early modern America, with allusions to race relations and social values, while simultaneously celebrating the themes of industry, progress, and urban life. An array of pre-Depression types—flappers, farmers, steel workers, stock market tycoons, and others representing a cross section of American life—will surround visitors in the mural space and can be further explored in the adjacent galleries, which will present many of the studies Benton made during his travels around the United States in the 1920s and to which he referred for the mural project.
The Mural Studies
The second section of the exhibition, featuring Benton’s studies for America Today, illuminates the deliberative nature of his working process. Besides the impressions Benton captured during his travels around the U.S. in the 1920s, the studies on view will include character studies in pencil for figures that appear in the mural, as well as painted compositional studies for individual mural panels.
The final section of the exhibition includes works that relate to Benton’s America Today drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s Departments of Modern and Contemporary Art, Photographs, and European Paintings. Highlights of this section are other works by Benton; renowned photographs by Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, and Lewis Hine; and, of particular interest, Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943). During the time Benton was painting America Today, Pollock was his student and served as a model for his teacher’s mural. The inclusion of Pollock’s abstract painting in the exhibition provides opportunities to consider the complex personal and artistic relationship between the two artists.
From the New School to the Metropolitan
After more than 50 years in the boardroom of the New School, a space that was subsequently used as a classroom, America Today proved difficult for the school to maintain in perpetuity. In 1982, the school announced the sale of the mural cycle to the Manhattan art dealer Maurice Segoura, with the condition that it would not be re-sold outside the United States or as individual panels. But the work was a great challenge to sell as a whole, increasing the likelihood that the panels would be dispersed.
America Today was acquired by AXA (then Equitable Life) in 1984, in support of efforts on the part of then-Mayor Edward I. Koch and others to keep it intact and in New York City. Two years later, after extensive cleaning and restoration, America Today was unveiled to critical acclaim in AXA’s new headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue. When the company moved its corporate headquarters again in 1996, to 1290 Avenue of the Americas, America Today was put on display in the lobby. There it remained until January 2012, when the company was asked to remove it to make way for a renovation. The removal triggered AXA’s decision to place the historic work in a museum collection, and in December 2012, AXA donated the mural to the Metropolitan Museum. This transformative gift was facilitated by H. Barbara Weinberg, Curator Emerita, The American Wing, and Pari Stave, Senior Administrator in the Museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
More information about the 2012 gift can be found in the Press Room on the Museum’s website.
Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered is organized by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Randall Griffey, Associate Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, both of the Metropolitan Museum.
A variety of education programs will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. These include gallery talks, a Sunday at the Met lecture, a scholars’ day workshop event, and a one-day symposium.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a Bulletin published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Essays by curators Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Randall Griffey will reveal new findings regarding the significance of the murals, as well as the results of an intensive technical examination, including infrared reflectography, exploring Benton’s working methods. The Bulletin—which will be sold in the Museum's book shop and online for $14.95—will be available in February 2015.
The publication is made possible by the William Cullen Bryant Fellows.
The Metropolitan’s quarterly Bulletin program is supported in part by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, established by the cofounder of Reader’s Digest.
The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.
AXA is the brand name of AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company (New York, New York), the primary U.S. subsidiary of the global AXA Group (AXA S.A.).
Thomas Struth: Photographs
September 30, 2014–February 16, 2015
Twenty-five photographs by Thomas Struth (German, born 1954), one of the most accomplished and celebrated artists of the last half-century, will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 30, 2014 through February 16, 2015. From his early black-and-white streetscapes made in New York in 1978 to recent and previously unseen works, Struth’s photographs explore both the traditions and actual conditions of a world on the cusp of global change.
The exhibition is made possible by Vivian and James Zelter.
Thomas Struth: Photographs offers a compact yet comprehensive survey of the major developments in this prominent artist’s oeuvre. A new photograph, Figure 2, Charité, Berlin (2014), shows a surgical operation. Also included are examples from the landmark Museum Photographs series—large-scale views of visitors in museums and other cultural settings—as well as sensitive and humanistic portraits and wall-size views of grand public spaces from Times Square to Tiananmen Square.
The Metropolitan owns three stellar works from Struth’s Museum Photographs, and a highlight of this installation will be the inclusion of another from the series, on loan from a private collection—the iconic Pantheon, Rome (1990), perhaps Struth’s signature image from the series. Showing visitors gazing as if to the heavens in one of the greatest buildings to survive from antiquity, his photograph unites the timeless and the ephemeral, allowing viewers to see two perspectives—the ideal and the real—on the same theme.
Also featured is a lush, primeval-looking forest scene in Japan, Paradise 13, Yakushima, Japan (1999), among other majestic photographs.
The exhibition includes a work recently acquired by the Museum, Hot Rolling Mill, ThyssenKrupp Steel, Duisburg (2010). This monumental, nine-foot-wide color photograph brings Struth full circle to the industrial architectural subjects of two of his professors from the Kunstakadamie in Düsseldorf during the mid-1970s, Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Evidence of the Bechers’ influence can also be seen in Struth’s portfolio The Streets of New York, one of only three complete sets created by the artist in 1978, acquired by the Metropolitan in 1982, and shown in this installation in its entirety. Avoiding subjectivity through a centralized viewpoint and comparative technique, Struth catalogued with clarity and dispassion the unselfconscious structures that characterize a culture—that irreducible mélange of textures, shapes, and the scale of its streets. The result was an unprecedented update of the tradition of urban photography infused with a deep understanding of context and serial progression. Struth had absorbed then-recent developments in Minimal and Conceptual art at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. As with his later series, he leaves space for each viewer’s participation in understanding his or her environment and, by extension, any environment—an exercise in critical vision that is essentially global and salutary in effect.
Thomas Struth: Photographs is curated by Doug Eklund, Curator in the Department of Photographs, and Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs.
A related education program, “Conversation with a Curator—Thomas Struth's Eleonor and Giles Robertson, Edinburgh,” will take place on October 30, 2:00–2:30 p.m.
Additional information about the exhibition is available on the Museum's website.
Kimono: A Modern History
September 27, 2014–January 4, 2015
Worn by men and women of all ages, the kimono is a simple garment with a complex history that has been shaped by the evolution of weaving, dyeing, and embroidery techniques as well as cultural changes in Japan. Featuring more than 50 spectacular robes dating from the 18th century to the present day, Kimono: A Modern History will tell the fascinating story of this eloquent garment, whose designs and patterns reflect trends in pictorial and decorative arts of the same period. Opening on September 27, the exhibition will present a range of garments, from sumptuous robes custom-made for wealthy patrons to every-day kimonos worn by the general public. Some 25 robes on loan from private and public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the renowned John C. Weber Collection, and others, will complement examples from the Metropolitan Museum’s own rich collection. Also on view will be paintings, prints, illustrated books, and other objects, including lacquerware and ceramics, with design patterns that mirror those found on kimonos.
The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund.
The kimono has long served as a tableau on which to inscribe and describe the effects of modernization on Japan. This aspect of the kimono—its capacity to absorb and reflect cultural change so that it has become a chronicle of the country’s efforts to shape its national identity on the world stage—will be highlighted in the exhibition’s organization.
The first gallery, with gorgeous Noh robes, will be followed by a section devoted to the development during the Edo period (1615–1867) of what would be considered today as the “fashion industry”; it will focus, for example, on the network that formed among publishers of ukiyo-e prints, woodblock-printed books, and fabric merchants. During this period, woodblock-printed pattern books, called hinagatabon, played a crucial role in transmitting the most fashionable designs, just as fashion magazines and catalogues do today. The objects on view will include a rare example of one of the very earliest woodblock-printed pattern books, the On-hiinagata, published in 1667.
The history of Edo-period kosode fashion will also be discussed, through screens and ukiyo-e paintings. Among the works on view will be the provocatively entitled screen Whose Sleeves (Tagasode) and a selection of elegant kosode, a type of women’s kimono with “small sleeve” openings.
The next section will focus on the modernization of the kimono in the Meiji period (1868–1912). In an attempt to place Japan on equal footing with Europe and America, Japanese officials began wearing Western-style clothing. In the late 1880s, even Empress Shōken promoted Western gowns to encourage women to adopt modern modes of dress. The kimono gradually became identified as Japan’s national dress, and at the same time became a highly sought-after fashion item in Europe and the United States, coinciding with the Japonisme craze that inspired many Western artists and designers, notably Vincent van Gogh and other Impressionists.
The importation of Western dyes and machinery had a profound effect on the kimono industry. This section of the exhibition will present a selection of modern kimonos made especially for a Western clientele. During this time, with fabrics being designed to be exhibited at World Expositions, Japan’s domestic textile industry gradually became integrated into world textile markets. The late Meiji period saw the emergence of Japanese department stores, such as Takashimaya, new advertising techniques, the rise of a largely female consumer base, and wide distribution of fashion magazines, often inspired by Western models. The pieces on view will include—from the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute collection—a lavish Takashimaya kimono made for the Western market, as well as Meiji-period woodblock prints to illustrate contemporary fashion trends. A selection of Meiji period decorative arts will complete this section.
The Taishō period (1912–1926) saw great urban growth, particularly in Tokyo. The prosperity and optimism of the period is evident in the colorful and cheerful textile designs, such as a kimono ensemble with brilliant explosions of chrysanthemum blossoms. Although Western-style clothes gained popularity, the kimono continued to be every-day wear. The motifs were dramatically enlarged and new designs appeared, sometimes inspired by Western-style painting. In creating such boldly patterned kimonos, the designers benefited from new types of silk and innovative patterning techniques, making relatively inexpensive, highly fashionable garments available to more people than ever before. These vibrant kimono styles remained popular until the 1950s.
During the Shōwa period (1926–1989), kimono design continued to evolve in response to artistic and political upheaval at the international level. This section will include a selection of war propaganda kimonos with unique designs reflecting contemporary politics of the 1930s and 1940s. Representative of the kind of deluxe garments that were also created during the interwar period is a dramatic 1930s kimono on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that shows a bold composition of brilliantly colored peonies against a mustard-colored background.
Over time, kimono makers evolved from nameless artisans to designated Living National Treasures, and the kimono gradually transformed from an item of every-day clothing to an exclusively ceremonial garment. And today the story continues, with Japan experiencing a “kimono boom” and many eminent fashion designers, both in Japan and the West, creating innovative works inspired by the age-old indigenous garment.
Credits, Publications, and Related Programs
The exhibition is organized by John T. Carpenter, Curator of Japanese Art, and Monika Bincsik, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, both in the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This exhibition is inspired by the research and publications of the late Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, an independent scholar who specialized in the history of Japanese textiles. The exhibition will coincide with the publication of Milhaupt’s book Kimono: A Modern History, published by Reaktion Books.
The Museum will offer education programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including a Sunday at the Met on October 19, 2014, a Friday evening gallery event, exhibition tours, a Drop-in Drawing class, and a studio workshop.
The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.
Image: Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954). Pantheon, Rome, 1990. Chromogenic print. Private collection, New York
Elyse Topalian tel (212) 570-3951 fax (212) 472-2764 email@example.com
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