Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Year of Peril”
June 9, 2016
by Ozana Plemenitash
Thomas Hart Benton’s violently shocking and propagandistic The Year of Peril (1941–42) series introduces “AAA and World War II,” one of five sections in Art For Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934–2000. The series presents us with one aspect of the company’s mission—to not only provide accessible artwork to the American public but also advocate a safe future for Americans through support for the war effort. Three images from the series are on display at the Grey, a painting (The Sowers), one poster-style reproduction (Starry Night), and a magazine cover (Again). Along with these is a video of a Paramount Pictures newsreel reporting on the series’ opening exhibition in April 1942 at AAA’s gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York. Benton created this striking series in an effort to jolt Americans out of their inertia, to challenge the public’s over-confident and over-optimistic perceptions of the war, and to awaken them to the grimness of the situation.
Begun immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the series clearly reflects Benton’s outrage and his wholehearted support for the United States entering the war. He originally intended to hang the works in Kansas City’s Union train station in his hometown to broadcast the war’s horrors to his neighbors and fellow community members. Upon seeing the works hanging in Benton’s studio however, Reeves Lewenthal, AAA’s founder and then–federal government art consultant, had another vision for the series. He believed that the works and their message called for exposure on a much larger, national scale. Lewenthal arranged for Abbot Laboratories, a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company that was already involved in war-related art patronage, to purchase the series and underwrite both an illustrated brochure and individual color reproductions, all of which were to be distributed internationally by the US government. During AAA’s exhibition in New York, the series drew over 75,000 visitors, and it later toured nationally. Paramount Pictures’ newsreel of the exhibition’s opening was shown in movie theaters nationwide, further increasing the series’ public exposure.
“The most famous American antifascist propaganda produced during the Second World War,”(1) Benton’s works stand apart from other war-related propaganda images of the time, which avoid scenes of bloody, gruesome military combat. His images depict the horrors of war, specifically horrors inflicted by the highly caricatured Axis powers. The Sowers presents a foreboding scene, with a bare-chested, ogre-like Japanese soldier occupying most of the composition, spreading his muscular arms as he tosses skulls to the barren ground, literally planting the seeds of death. Behind him, billowing swirls of smoke and fire rise up underscoring the atmosphere of chaos and destruction. The grotesque soldier in The Sowers exemplifies the exaggerated style Benton chose to depict America’s enemies. He is stripped of humanity, compassion, and understanding, quite literally through reducing his facial expression to a gaping mouth.
Despite the series’ widespread success, federal officers deemed the images too brutal and grotesque for widespread viewing and canceled distribution of the series. Today, the series serves as a compelling reflection on and a highly politicized document of the experience of World War II. With the financial backing of AAA and Abbot Laboratories, Benton mobilized his horrifying images to advocate strongly for the irrefutable necessity of United States entry into the war.
[1.]Cecile Whiting, “Antifascism in American Art,” as cited in Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists 1934—2000, ed. Elizabeth G. Seaton, Jane Myers, and Gail Windisch (Manhattan, KS: Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, 2015), 123.
Ozana Plemenitash is a current intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She has just received her BA in Art History and French from NYU.