- Another day, another birthday (what are the odds but it’s definitely worth trying: happy birthday to you if it’s yours as well). – Happy birthday Ben Shahn, you would have been 114 years old (if you do the math correctly you should find out he was born in 1898, unless I made a mistake). You probably can not see this, nor hear this but non the less here’s your gift (Yes I know, it’s a review).
Ben Shahn is most likely not well-known among you (at least not like you know Rothko, Klee..) but I do believe, although controversial, he made a big difference. You should know that his major works are to be situated in the first half of the 20th century. Which means; the era of the avant-garde (Dada, Surrealism, ..) and later on Abstract Expressionism (WWII) when the major ‘artscape’ moved from Europe to America (because of the harsh regimes in Europe which suppressed all kinds of (artistic) freedom and therefore creativity). This is the time when a lot of painters, musicians, scientist, etc. had to move or rather flee to America or other non occupied regions. So did Ben Shahn.
“He identified himself as a communicative artist and employed pictorial realities instead of Abstract forms “to discover new truths about man and to reaffirm that his life is significant“. “
As my header might already have suggested, his themes and way of representing them were nothing like those used by the avant-garde, Abstract Expressionists. Whose paintings mostly were highly esoteric, abstract figures were used or/and color won over figure. So you won’t be surprised if I told you he challenged these ‘esoteric pretensions’ of art, which he believed disconnect artist’s and their work from the people, their public.
As an alternative Shahn tried to accomplish an intimate and mutually beneficial relationship between artist and public. He identified himself as a communicative artist and employed pictorial realities instead of Abstract forms “to discover new truths about man and to reaffirm that his life is significant“. But this didn’t mean he was a painter of the proletariat. As you can see on the painting below he did not only paint ‘social problems’ and ‘war-based iconography’. The painting ‘Still Music’ kind of reminds me of Miro, the playfulness of the lines and the rather ‘monotone background’. Whilst the second one -Farewell Luck Dragon- reminds of some landscapes Egon Schiele made or even a bit of Paul Klee.
Non the less he also made some stark, dark and ‘bloody-shocking’ pictures:
Or this one, which depicts on a harsh and bloody way the desolation and loneliness of war by showing a lonely, (most likely) dead soldier.
And my favorite:
I could go on like this for pages, talking about the wonderful photographs, illustrations and murals he made. Narrating his life and so on. Although I believe that I made my point already telling you this painter had a statement of its own and did not follow any major group or stream as most artists in NYC did that time. He kept his own values and expressed humanity in a pictorial and ‘human’ way, although he wasn’t afraid of the color red, in contrary. It is worth saying that his art could be described as being introspective but non the less he often captured his figures engrossed in their own world.