A Year: Day to Day Men: 12th of September, Solar Year 2018

The Garden Wall

September 12, 1898 marks the birthdate of the social realist artist Ben Shahn.

Ben Shahn began his path to becoming an artist when his family left Lithuania and moved to Brooklyn, New York. He was trained in his early years as a lithographer and graphic designer; his experience in these fields would be apparent in his future works, combining text with images. Although Shahn attended New York University as a biology student in 1919, he left to pursue art at City College in 1921 and later at the National Academy of Design.

Ben Shahn’s twenty-three gouache paintings of the trials of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti communicated the political concerns of his time. Shahn followed the trial closely and believed, like many people worldwide, that the two men were not given a fair trial. Shahn participated in protests and made his gouache paintings in 1931 and 1932. Many were based on photographs appearing in the newspapers. “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” was exhibited in 1932 and received acclaim for both the public and the critics.

Ben Shahn’s work came to the attention of Diego Rivera. In May and June of 1933, Shahn served as an assistant to Rivera while Rivera executed his New York Rockefeller Center mural. During the Depression years, Shahn worked for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, photographing the American south; his social documentary style emphasized the people’s living and working conditions. Shahn also painted many fresco murals for schools, post offices, and government buildings; the art he made affirmed his social justice ideals and the legacy of the Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Shahn mixed different genres of art; however, his body of work is distinctive for its lack of traditional portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. He used both expressive and precise visual languages, which he united through the consistency of using a strong line in his work. Shahn’s background in lithography contributed to his devotion to detail; his work is also noted for his use of unique symbolism, often compared to the imagery in Paul Klee’s drawings.

Ben Shahn’s social-realist vision informed his approach to art; his examination of the status quo inspired his creative process. Although Shahn often explored contested themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration and injustice, he did so while maintaining a compassionate tone. Shahn identified himself as a communicative artist, challenging the esoteric pretensions of art, which he believed disconnect the artists and their work from the public.

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