Go West, Mr. Burns

Thomas Hart Benton’s monumental painting The Kentuckian depicts the protagonists of the 1954 movie The Kentuckian, directed by Burt Lancaster. The Kentuckian follows the adventures of “Big” Eli Wakefield and “Little” Eli Wakefield (played by Lancaster and Donald MacDonald, respectively) as they head West in search of freedom from the constraints of polite society.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Kentuckian, 1954, gift of Burt Lancaster, © Thomas Hart Benton Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Benton energetically conveyed the spirit of the Wakefields’ idealistic quest in his image of Big Eli leading his son and faithful hound to the left (west) across the canvas—a magnificent landscape beckoning and undulating before them. In more recent decades, some artists and animators have found ways to poke fun at this classic narrative of American ambition and individualism enacted by movie stars and projected onto Hollywood’s big screen and Benton’s huge canvas at LACMA.

In a previous post I highlighted conceptual artist Michael Asher’s take on the painting in a site-specific work commissioned for the museum.  Then fellow Unframed blogger Devi Noor found this great clip on YouTube of a Simpsons episode in which The Kentuckian makes a hilarious cameo appearance as a campaign image for a politicking Mr. Burns. A testament to the power of Benton’s image, these riffs on the painting also underscore the way meanings of iconic images can shift depending on who is looking and when.

Austen Bailly

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