At the Sandzén Gallery, a paragraph beside a small Thomas Hart Benton painting adds to the desperation that cries from this work. The painting, roughly 18 inches square, is called “Homecoming ‒ Kaw Valley 1951”, and is among scores of works in an exhibit, “Print Culture in Kansas City”, part of the Gallery’s Midwest Art Exhibition.
This Benton work, though, has seen service in journal- ism and politics, because the artist used it to campaign for aid to families and communities devastated by historic flooding in Kansas and Missouri in 1951. The painting is dark, with no other color, a bleak silhouette of people returned to find only pieces of what was once home.
Benton produced the work to raise money for Kansas City victims, with the title, “Flood Disaster”. Enough prints were reproduced to send to 435 members of the U.S. House and (then) 96 members of the Senate to persuade a vote for flood relief.
“Each impression was signed by the artist and accom- panied by a short personal letter explaining the desperate reason, concluding with the hope for a ‘new bill which will relieve the human side of this rotting catastrophe’”, explains the note beside Benton’s brooding work.
The New York Times published a story about Benton’s campaign on Oct. 15, 1951 beneath a headline “Artist Asking Congress to Aid Flood Victims.” A month later, The New Republic published an image of the black-and- white work with a dramatic Benton essay on the disaster entitled “Disaster on the Kaw.”
The story of this painting, said Henry Adams, a Benton scholar, dramatized Benton’s “sympathy with the poor and dispossessed, his political savvy, his uncanny publicity skills, his knack for politics, and even his literary gifts – for what other painter of the times was writing essays for The New Republic?”.
Across Kansas and Missouri, two million acres had been flooded, leaving 17 dead, 15,000 homes destroyed and beyond repair, and more than a half-million people displaced. Kansas City philanthropists bought Benton’s painting but the prints’ fund raising was not so success- ful. A few congressmen appreciated Benton’s appeal “but many of the prints were tossed in the trash,” the paragraph said. A relief bill was eventually passed, and signed by President Truman, who expressed disappointment that the Congress could not do more.
Benton’s work remains to ring an ancient bell, its peal
‒ JOHN MARSHALL