The Benton: Inspiring the future with the classics

The William Benton Museum of Art is home to a collection that shows the scope of art history, allowing visitors to see the connection from the past to the present. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

The Benton Museum’s permanent classical art collection showcases works that dates back hundreds of years, and yet many students connect the ancient art to modern.

“It’s sort of a portal back in time. To see what some people look like, or how people are portrayed. This is history,” said Gregory Bicknell, an eighth-semester mechanical engineering major and gallery attendant at the Benton.

Although many of the pieces are older, they hold ideas and aesthetic inspirations that have greatly influenced contemporary art. As you walk through the exhibits, the paintings become more current, as a sign that art progresses with the times it’s created in.

Krystina Jackson, an eighth-semester psychology major, compared the new and old ways of capturing a moment. “Our social media is their art,” said Jackson, viewing the paintings as a relic that freezes time of a bygone era.

“We just take it and move on,” said Miranda Tarpey, an eighth-semester marketing major, talking about how we take easy pictures on our phones compared to physically painting every single detail on the canvas to truly capture the moment.

“Think of the importance we now put on photography and what goes on in the TV. Those paintings are sort of that equivalent of back then, but in a different way,” said Jean Nihoul, adjunct professor in the art history department and assistant curator and academic project coordinator at the Benton.

Another provoking theme from the paintings is how they challenged societal norms. Some of the paintings in the permanent classical section feature nudity, and in a separate exhibit at the Benton, modern paintings of nude men are also featured.

“There has been a long running theme of artists finding the beauty with the human body,” said Mac Cherny, an eighth-semester B.A. theater studies major and gallery guard at the Benton, who went onto say, “The human body is a beautiful thing and this exhibit, and art in general, really helps people be open to that idea as opposed to looking at people solely as sexual objects.”

Although the connection of nudity is found between the contemporary and classical pieces, Nihoul says that the purpose of nudity in earlier centuries was not nearly as politically charged as what is the case in the modern male nudity exhibit.

“There’s no way to further the future if you don’t understand what has already happened in the past. You’re not necessarily striving for something as new as you thought was possible if you don’t know what came before,” said Nihoul.

The idea of taking inspiration from the past, yet striving to make future art unique to its times holds true in this case. Past paintings of nudity have influenced new artists, but for different purposes, according to Nihoul.

But Nihoul believes that the power of art can only be fully realized by “seeing art in person—there’s just no way of knowing how powerful or great that work is unless you see it in person.” The detail, textures and idiosyncrasies of a painting come to life in a live setting.

The Benton Museum owns all of the classics on exhibit from donations, according to Nihoul. “We are lucky and privileged to have priceless works of art that were donated here at our disposal,” said Cherny.

In an academic environment, which encourages forward thinking while holding reverence for the past and our history, the Benton Museum showcases art that is open to the university, which combines the past with the present.

“They’re great pieces of art and to think we have it here at UConn is really amazing. These are originals that you won’t be able to see anywhere else,” said Bicknell.


Brett Steinberg is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at brett.steinberg@uconn.edu. He tweets @OfficialBrett.