Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Ben Shahn - part 1



Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist and member of the Social Realist movement. His expressive figurative paintings, murals, and posters were inexorably tied to his pursuit of social justice and lifelong activism within leftist political beliefs. Shahn unflinchingly critiqued the government and society, as seen in his The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–1932), a painting which condemned the controversial conviction of two Italian-American immigrants who were sentenced to death in 1927. “The artist must operate on the assumption that the public consists in the highest order of individual—that he is civilised, cultured, and highly sensitive both to emotional and intellectual contexts,” he once stated. “And while the whole public most certainly does not consist in that sort of individual, still the tendency of art is to create such a public—to lift the level of perceptivity, to increase and enrich the average individual's store of values.” 

Born in 1898 in Kaunas, Lithuania into an Orthodox Jewish family, he and his family emigrated to New York in 1906. Shahn went on to study at the National Academy of Design in New York and travelled throughout Europe during the 1920s. Upon his return to the United States, he assisted Diego Rivera in 1933 for the painting of his Man at the Crossroads fresco in Rockefeller Center. During the latter part of his career, the artist’s paintings became more symbolic of his own emotional state rather than a description of social injustices. 

Sharing a studio in 1929 with the photographer Walker Evans stimulated Shahn's own interest in photography; he began photographing people and street scenes, first in New York and later around the country. These photographs served as the basis for many of his prints and paintings. A series on his photographs will feature in the back end of these posts on Shahn.

He died in March 1969 in New York City. Today, Shahn’s works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.

This is part 1 of a 12-part series on the works of Ben Shahn

(with apologies for the continuing mess of variations in the caption fonts, all happening by glitches in the new formatting by Google):


1931 Bathers
oil on canvas 50.8 x 101.6 cm

1931-32 The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti:

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is one of a series of twenty-three paintings (not all found here) that Ben Shahn made about the controversial trial of two working-class Italian-American immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.In 1927, the men were sentenced to death for armed robbery and the murder of a shoe company paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After a jury convicted them on the basis of circumstantial evidence, three specially appointed commissioners upheld the death sentence verdict. The case caused public outrage since the case against the two men was weak, and many believed that they were the victims of ethnic discrimination, right-wing politics, and a corrupt police investigation.  Their execution provoked international riots and protest demonstrations.


 1931-32 Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco
gouache on paper on board 27.6 x 37.1 cm
MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Photograph of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco that Shahn's painting was based on.

1931-32 Sacco and Vanzetti: In the Courtroom Cage
watercolour  and gouache and pen and black ink
21.5 x 25.7 cm

1931-32 The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
tempera and opaque watercolour on canvas 213.4 x 121.9 cm
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1932-32 Sacco's Family after the Verdict
gouache, pen and ink on paper 27.3 x 25.4 cm

1958 Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
screenprint 76.8 x 56.8 cm
MoMA, New York

1958 Portrait of Sacco and Vanzetti
screenprint 63.4 x 50.6 cm
MoMA, New York


Sacco and Vanzetti mural at Syracuse University, New York
mosaic tiles

Sacco and Vanzetti mural at Syracuse University

Sacco and Vanzetti mural at Syracuse University

Sacco and Vanzetti mural at Syracuse University


c1931 Levana and Our Lady of Sorrow (10 lithographs):

Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow

"Behold what is greater than yourselves!"
lithograph

Eternal silence reigns in their kingdoms
lithograph

Every slave that at noonday looks up to the tropical sun with timid reproach...
lithograph

Every woman sitting in darkness...
lithograph

he worshipped the worm and prayed to the wormy grave.
lithograph

I saw (dimly relieved upon the dark background of my dreams) the imperfect lineaments of the awful Sisters.
lithograph

Rachel weeping for her duties and refusing to be comforted.
 lithograph

She also is the mother of lunacies and the suggestress of suicides.
lithograph

She it was that stood in Bethlehem on the night when Herod's sword swept its nurseries of Innocents.
 lithograph

..... to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of his spirit"
 lithograph

1932-33 Tom Mooney Series:
Tom Mooney was an American Socialist union organiser and activist convicted of murder in connection with a 1916 San Francisco bond explosion.

A report on the Mooney-Billings case prepared in 1931 by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement cast serious doubt on the evidence that led to Mooney’s conviction and he was officially pardoned in 1961.


1932 Two Witnesses, Mellie Edeau and Sadie Edeau: Mooney Series
tempera on paper mounted on composition board 30.8 x 41 cm
MoMA, New York

1917 Mellie and Sadie Edeau
Haldeman-Julius Photograph Collection

1933 Demonstration: Mooney Series
Harvard Art Museums


1932 Supreme Court of California: Mooney Series
gouache on paper 40.7 x 61 cm

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c1932 Double Self Portrait in Truro
ink on paper 25.4 x 38.1 cm

1934 Federal Agents pouring wine down a sewer during Prohibition
egg tempera and gouache on masonite
Museum of the City of New York

c1934 Study for Prohibition murals (detail)
gouache on board 80.6 x 41.9 cm
Museum of the City of New York

1935 Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President of General Motors
black ink and gouache on paper 45.7 x 28.6 cm

c1935 Ray's Sister
ink on paper 23.5 x 19.5 cm
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA

c1936 Farmer and Son
ink on paper 14 x 22.2 cm

1937 Scotts Run, West Virginia
tempera on paper mounted on wood
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
(based on the photograph by Shahn below)

1935 Striking Miners, Scotts Run, West Virginia
gelatin silver print 20.3 x 25.4cm

1937 Years of Dust
lithograph 96.2 x 63.5 cm
MoMA, New York

1967-68 Paperback edition of The Grapes of Wrath
 Penguin Books, London


1938 Mural at the community building. 
Hightstown, New Jersey:



















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1939 Freedom of Speech (Design No.2)
tempera on board 13.9 x 39.4 cm


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