The Anarchist Encyclopedia:
SAINT BEN SHAHN
Graphic artist & social conscience, Ben Shahn lives September 12, 1898; dies, March 14, 1969 in New York City.
Ben Shahn is perfectly suited to be a Jubilee Saint/Sinner. He was an artist, a genius, a self-declared propagandist, & an s.o.b. He was right at home on the blacklists of the FBI & the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His art was attacked on the floor of the House of Representatives, & at almost the same time was condemned by a panel of artists & critics at the Museum of Modern Art. Fortunately, he was tough.
A year after the centenary of Shahn's birth in Kaunas, Lithuania, readers of the Daily Bleed, & others, too, have several opportunities to make up their own minds about Shahn & his work . . .
Shahn, Ben (1898-1969) American artist, whose work addresses social issues... His work is notable for its strong, flat colors; clear, incisive lines; & social realism. He often painted immigrants, the poor, sweatshops, & unflattering portraits of politicians. In the 1930s Shahn worked as a photographer for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, documenting rural poverty. --- Encarta Concise Encyclopedia Article Shahn, Ben (Benjamin) 1898-1969 --- Biography(r) Online Database
//1 -- Hunger by Ben Shahn
Painter, photographer, graphic artist...emigrated with his parents to New York (1906), was a lithographer (1913-1930), & studied at the National Academy of Design (1922). After study in Europe (1925-1927), he became an activist painter in New York. A sequence of 23 gouaches based on the Sacco-Vanzetti case (1931-1932) that ended in the execution of two political anarchists, & his series on the trial of labor leader Tom Mooney (1933), established his reputation. His style was semiabstract & boldly colored, & his posters for activist causes reflect his paintings.
Shahn, Ben (1898-1969) American artist, whose work addresses social issues... His work is notable for its strong, flat colors; clear, incisive lines; & social realism. He often painted immigrants, the poor, sweatshops, & unflattering portraits of politicians. In the 1930s Shahn worked as a photographer for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, documenting rural poverty.
--- Encarta Concise Encyclopedia Article
Shahn, Ben (Benjamin) 1898-1969
--- Biography(r) Online Database
First, look at what he did for Sacco & Vanzetti & for Tom Mooney. If you are in or near New York City, check out Shahn at the Jewish Museum or the Whitney. The Jewish Museum just held a major exhibition of Shahn's work (it closed March 7), which will be shown in Detroit July 25 through October 31, 1999. The Whitney owns & proudly shows The Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti, Shahn's best-known work . . .
//3 -- Detail of the Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti
The murder trial of Sacco & Vanzetti was one of this century's most dramatic & controversial; their front-page trial was filled with dubious claims. Sacco & Vanzetti's story was procedures; & the years of appeals & their eventual execution led to protests around the world.
Shahn's mural, the Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti, consists of three connected panels. In the first, a group of protesters symbolize the tumult that both led to and followed the arrest of Sacco & Vanzetti. In the second, Sacco & Vanzetti, handcuffed to one another, tower in a symbolic representation of their moral stature. Their shadows slant accusingly towards a courthouse. Standing behind them, a diminutive governor Fuller, casting no shadow, reads his verdict. In the third, members of the committee, in top hats & academic garb, hold flowers over coffins containing the bodies of Sacco & Vanzetti.
"Long ago a British judge was quoted as saying he refused clemency at popular demand to uphold the principle of capital punishment and to prove he was not to be intimidated by public protest. During Hitler’s time, Himmler remarked that for the good of the state, popular complaints should be ignored, and if they persisted, the complainers should be punished. Judge Webster Thayer during the Sacco-Vanzetti episode, was heard to boast while playing golf,
"Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?"
— Katherine Anne Porter
The Never-Ending Wrong
August 28, 1968 -- Chicago FBI agents report "GINSBERG chanted unintelligible poems . . .
AMERICA America free TomMooney America save the SpanishLoyalists America Sacco& Vanzetti must not die Four Daily Bleed References to Tom Mooney
- July 22, 1916 -- Bomb explodes during a "Preparedness Day" parade in San Francisco, killing 10 & injuring 40. Thomas J. Mooney, a labor organizer & Warren K. Billings, a shoe worker, were convicted.
- February 9, 1917 -- Agitator Tom Mooney falsely convicted of fatal bombing.
- January 7, 1939 -- Tom Mooney freed after 22 ½ years in jail on false charges.
See: Frame-up by Curt Gentry, & Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader, ed. Gene Fellner, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1992.
& not far out of the city is Roosevelt, NJ, where Shahn lived & worked. His largest work is the mural in the public school there. You can view it on-line at http://woof.music.columbia.edu/~roosvlt/full 400a.jpg
In Roosevelt there is a bust of FDR by Ben's son Jonathan, whose work is also currently on view -- Jonathan Shahn, Representations, 1974-1998, Sculpture & Drawings, Simon Gallery, Morristown, NJ, March 9 -- April 3, 1999. & until recently you could have seen an exhibition of work by Ben's wife & Jonathan's mother, Bernarda Bryson, Shahn -- a retrospective for her at the Educational Alliance Art School closed in November, 1998 . . .
"It is my belief that the work of art is a product of he human spirit, & that, conversely, the function of the work of art is to enrich the human spirit." . . . Shahn describes the many images, ideas, & experiences that led to the creation of his painting, "Allegory." He explains his whole relationship with the painting, while also describing in more general terms the artist’s relationship with the public. . . ."
. . . At the very root of visual art in Jewish tradition is the letter, & Shahn’s interest in letters & alphabets (he created two) was deep. He found in ancient scripts, inscribed or carved, "a joy in workmanship that no time or weathering can erase."
"We may never know who dictated the words, or under what circumstances they were made. But the skill remains there, the elaboration of shapes & rhythms, the understanding that must reside in the workman & him alone. Small wonder that so many people have attributed thee origins of their alphabets to their gods!."
[1.] "Renascence," 1946
[2.] "Prometheus," 1946, U. Of Michigan Museum of Art
[3.] "Years of Dust," 1936, color lithograph poster, Library of Congress
[4.] "Allegory," [see Skidmore introduction, "The Biography of a Painting," above]
[5.] "Blind Street Musician," [no date] from Images of the Depression, for the Farm Security Administration
" . . . Ben Shahn combined the humanistic concerns of social realism with the personal freedom of abstract expressionism to form a style uniquely his own.
This retrospective of more than 50 works from 1936 to 1965 documents the . . . shifts that kept Shahn's work popular over the years, as well as his untiring commitment to social justice & historical remembrance. . . "
[CM, MV] focuses on the paintings of Ben Shahn . . . created between 1936 & 1965, & emphasizing the period of World War II & its aftermath. Shahn’s public recognition & personal style coalesced in 1932 with the exhibition of the renowned series on the trial & execution of Sacco & Vanzetti, the Italian immigrant anarchists. Shahn's social views were his legacy from the Jewish radical tradition in Eastern Europe, which evoilved . . . into a profound lifelong commitment to fight against injustice. Ben Shahn's life & career mark his dedication to humanitarian causes & belief in the regenerative powers of art.
Gallery -- seven images chosen by the Jewish Museum to represent the range of the exhibition, as follows:[1.] East Side Soap Box (Study for Jersey Homesteads Mural), 1936 gouache on paper; The Jewish Museum, NY
[2.] Myself Among the Churchgoers, 1939; tempera on Masonite; Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, MN
[3. Italian Landscape II:Europa, 1944; tempera on board; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, AL
[4.] New York, 1947; tempera on paper, mounted on board; The Jewish Museum, NY
[5.] Spring, 1947; tempera on Masonite; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
[6.] Ram’s Horn & Menorah, 1958; Tempera & gold leaf on board; Sid Deutsch Gallery, NY
[7.] A Score of White Pigeons (Lucky Dragon series), 1960; tempera on wood; Moderna Museet, Stockhom
Individual Images from Various Sources
[1.] The Passion of Sacco & Vanzeti, 1931-1932, tempera on canvas; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY;http://www.wisc.edy/arth/ah202/jmd/shahn.html
[2.] Untitled (Houston Street Playground, New York City, c. 1932-c.1936; gelatin silver print; Harvard University Art Museum;http://www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/Fogg_Pages/Shahn.html
[3.] Religious Meeting, Nashville, TN, 1935; gelatin silver print, Museum Purchase;http://hudson.acad.umn.doceye/shahn.html
[4.] Roosevelt Mural, in the Roosevelt Public School, Roosevelt, New Jersey, 1936-1937, 12' x 45';http://woof.music.columbia.edu/~roosvlt/mural.html
[5.] Roosevelt Mural, larger version;http://woof.music.columbia.edu/~roosvlt/full 400a.jpg
[6.] Father Coughlin, 1939;Ink and wash on paper; [location and ownership unknown];http://hudson.acad.umn.edu/eye/shahn.html
[7.] Three Friends (The Notables), 1941; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution;http://126.96.36.199/amico/apw/comment.cgi?aid=NMAA%2E1971%2E332
[8.] Italian Landscape, 1943-1944; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MNhttp://188.8.131.52/amico/apw/comment.cgi?aid=WAC%5f%2E44%2E4
[9.] Ave, detail ; [Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT];http://www.blunet.it/galleriua/shahn1.htm
[10.] Owl No. 1, n.d.; American National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; http://184.108.40.206/amico/apw/comment.cgi?aid=NMAA%2E1969%2E%2E45
[11.] Owl No. 2, n.d.; American National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution;http://220.127.116.11/amico/apw/comment.cgi?aid=NMAA%2E1971%2E%2E44
[12.] Arabs, not dated; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NYhttp://18.104.22.168/amico/apw/comment.cgi?aid=AKAG%2E1954%3A1%2e24
And there are books. The latest, & perhaps the best for getting a balanced view of the artist, the activist, & the whole man, is Ben Shahn, An Artist's Life, by Howard Greenfled (Random House, 1999), still too new to be showing up very often as a used book. An old standby is The Shape of Content (1957), by the artist himself, a unique book that has been assigned reading for art majors, English majors, & students in general for more than forty years. You can sample it on-line at http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~n9648471/shahn.html & at http://www.skidmore.edu/wbh/php.cgi/academics/lst/proto/SHAHN/shahn.intro.html There are lots of copies in stores, & they are worth seeking out & reading.
"No other event captures the revolutionary mission of Social Realist artists than the Rockefeller Center mural, which pitted creator Diego Rivera against the young Nelson Rockefeller. Shahn not only worked on the mural, but fiercely defended the right of the artists to define the subject matter, including portraits of Lenin and Trotsky.
Howard Greenfeld's new biography of Shahn, titled "Ben Shahn: an artist's life," details his role. Rivera had hired Shahn, after discovering his Sacco & Vanzetti series. The relationship between Rivera & Shahn mirrors the one between Siqueiros & Pollock, with shared enthusiasms over politics & artistic style. While Pollock eventually veered off into the sort of "art for art's sake" studio-based work that Shahn eschewed, Shahn never lost sight of his original mission.
The theme of the mural was to be "Man at the Crossroads." Rivera interpreted this as a choice between capitalism & socialism & left no room for ambiguity in the original sketch for the mural. It seems that 1930s Social Realists allowed themselves maximum flexibility, as Shahn's encounter with the St. Louis Post Office indicated. Rivera & Shahn were cut from the same cloth. Social justice meant more than the petty concerns of their patrons, either private or public.
Finally, Shahn not only wrote but illustrated beautiful books. There is & Ecclesiastes, very expensive still, but a true collector's item. And there are two books about letters that you will love if you love letters -- a and b and c, aleph, beth and gimmel. The titles are The Alphabet of Creation & Love & Joy about Letters. If you know the Hebrew alphabet that's a bonus, but if you are interested in letters & their shapes, these would be books for you to cherish.
As for Ben, he was an abrasive, bullying, cheating, out-of-control saint, just our kind of guy!
---Wild Bill Koehnline
page created Nov. 2000; some updates March 2004; Links need to be checked, badly dated
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