Who was Ben Shahn ?

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall left Sumita Narona intrigued. After hearing Allen make a joke about Ben Shahn,she mailed in to know whether Shahn was a Russian or Jewish.

Written by EXPRESS FEATURES SERVICE | Published: February 23, 2009 4:38 am

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall left Sumita Narona intrigued. After hearing Allen make a joke about Ben Shahn,she mailed in to know whether Shahn was a Russian or Jewish.

It all seemed muddled. So,here’s to revisiting his art: Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist. Lithuania was once part of Russia and touched borders with Poland. However now it is a Republic and is part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. So clearly Shahn has an interesting linage.

Shahn’s development began in New York. To rewind a bit,Shahn’s father,Joshua Hessel,was a revolutionary who was exiled to Siberia in 1902 when Shahn was barely a four-year-old. His family was forced to migrate to the United States in 1906,and Hessel joined the family later and they settled in Brooklyn.

Shahn began his career as a lithographer. This determined a lot of Shahn’s style which later evolved into what art historians call ‘social’ realism. He also worked mainly in egg tempera which we discussed earlier as a technique of painting with egg yolk. This gave his work the gravity and solidity that he wanted to convey his left-wing political views.

Shahn’s moment of fame came when he was called in to assist the famed Mexican muralist,Diego Rivera,an important figure for the socialist movement. Together the two painted the Rockefeller Centre mural. It was later known as the infamous mural because the funders,who were Rockefellers,found it too anti-establishment and decided not to fund it.

Shahn consequently faced many rejection letters,from public art project societies. In 1934,his proposal for a big mural he had planned for the Public Work Project was rejected by the Municipal Art Commission on the grounds that it was too inflammatory.

While a romance with a photojournalist Bernarda Bryson,who he married later,served to lighten things up. A year later,Walker Evans a friend a recommended Shahn to Roy Stryker who enrolled him in the Farm Security Administration photography group (FSA). Being a member of the FSA allowed the artist to travel and document the South America.

During World War II,Shahn was commissioned to produce lithography posters of which only some were approved since it lacked ‘patriotic zeal’.

However,Shahn’s body of work has been markedly different for he pursued Social Realism at a time when others branched out into abstraction. He did not follow the typical style of academic partners who pursued typical landscapes,still-life works and portraiture. His work was potent and full of gentle social satire. He captured the urgency of reform and activism.

Demystify art,e-mail georgina.maddox@expressindia.com

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