Several weeks ago I was trying to remember the name of an artist and the name of Ben Shahn came into my head. It was not the artist I was trying to remember, but I suddenly remembered once loving Shahn’s work, though I hadn’t thought about him for years. That set me off on a search for images. I thought you all might enjoy a little glimpse of the work of Ben Shahn.
That’s him, standing way back there. The painting is Portrait of myself as a young boy.
Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania in 1898 and his family emigrated to the US in 1904. He worked as a lithographer’s apprentice while he studied at night at New York University and the National Academy of Design. He was considered a Social Realist when he began painting. Much of his work was based on the news and issues of the day, in the ’20s. One of his most recognizable works concerns the murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, which many people believed to be prejudiced due to anti-Italian biases of the judge and jury.
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
Blind Accordian Player
Shahn’s work seems to me very evocative of the periods of the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and his New York City location. There is a grimness about it, even subjects like the musicians and the handball players have a weary sadness about them.
Showing quite a different side was Shahn’s work as an illustrator and graphic artist, but it too seems to retain that sense of starkness that you see in his paintings. His sense of line and graphic expression is wonderfully spare.
There is a documentary about Shahn called “A Passion for Justice.” I have not seen the film, but found a lot of interesting information and good images at this web site about the film.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Ben Shahn:
“What then was I to paint? Slowly I found that I must paint those things that were meaningful to me–that I could honestly paint in the shapes and colors I felt belonged to them. What shall I paint? Stories.”