My featured artist today was quite unknown to me. I came across him and his paintings when I was flicking through an art book looking for information regarding another painter. One painting stood out from the rest and I have made it My Daily Art Display featured painting of today. There was something very haunting about the picture with its great sense of realism and I had to find out more about the work and the artist, Ben Shahn.
Ben Shahn was at the forefront of the American Social Realist art movement of the 1930s, a grouping, which included the likes of artists of the Ashcan School, many of whom I have featured in earlier blogs. Social Realism is a term used to describe visual and other realistic art works which record the everyday conditions of the working classes and mainly feature the life of the poor and deprived and how they had to live. The works are a pictorial criticism of the social environment that brought about these conditions. Social Realism has its roots back in the mid-19th century and the Realist movement in French art. Twentieth century Social Realism refers back to the works of the French artist such as Courbet and his painting Burial at Ornans or Millet’s great work The Gleaners. Social Reailsm art became an important art movement in America during their Great Depression of the 1930’s.
The art of the Social Realist painters often depicted cityscapes homing in on the decaying state of mining villages or broken-down shacks alongside railroad tracks. Their art is about poverty and the hardships endured by the ordinary but poor people. Often the works would focus on the indignity suffered by the poor and how they would work hard for little recompense. The depiction of this inequality of course implied a criticism of the capitalist society and capitalism itself. The Social Realist painters of America did not want their works to focus on the beauty of their country as portrayed by the likes of the Hudson River School painters. For them, to get their message across to the public, their works needed to depict the industrial suburbs with its grime and unpleasantness or the run-down farming communities with their broken-down buildings. Occasionally these artists would depict the rich in their paintings but they were only included for satirical reasons.
Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898 and was the eldest of five children of an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Joshua, was a woodcarver and cabinet maker. In 1902, probably because of his revolutionary activities, his father was exiled to Siberia. His mother, Gittel Lieberman, and her children moved to Vilkomir, which is now the Lithuanian town of Ukmerge. Four years later, in 1906, Shahn’s mother and three of her offsprings emigrated to America and settled in Brooklyn with Joshua who had already fled there from Siberia. Ben Shahn original artistic training was as a lithographer and then as a graphic artist.
At the age of twenty-one Shahn went to New York University and studied biology. Two years later he transferred to City College of New York to study art and then moved on to the New York National Academy of Design which is now known as The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.
In 1924 Shahn married Tillie Goldstein and the two set off on a long journey of discovery taking in North Africa and the traditional artist pilgrimage of the capital cities of Europe taking in the works of the great European modern artists of the time such as Matisse, Picasso and Klee. He had not been won over by their art or the European Modernist art scene and soon felt less influenced by their work and preferred to follow the style of the Realists painters especially those who showed a concern for the plight of the downtrodden. Shahn was inspired by the likes of the photographer Walker Evans, the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera and the French Realist painters. It was with Rivera that Shahn worked on the public mural at the Rockefeller Centre, which was to cause such controversy and had to be hidden from public view and eventually destroyed.
As a political activist Shahn became interested in newspaper photography. Photography was to act as his source material for some of his paintings and satires. During the 1930’s he was engaged in street photography himself, recording the lives of the working-class and immigrant populations and the hardship of the unemployed. Over the years Shahn, with his trusted 35mm Leica camera, built up a large collection of photographs which poignantly recorded the horror of unemployment and poverty during the Depression years.
My Daily Art Display featured painting is simply entitled Unemployment and was completed by Shahn in 1934. Shahn exhibited many paintings and photographs which highlighted the plight of the unemployed and homeless especially during the time of the Great Depression. Before us stand five men, all purported to be out of work. They look down on their luck. Their black eyes stare out at us. They stand upright trying to muster a certain amount of dignity despite the hopelessness of their situation. In some of their faces we see a look of desperation and fear of what their future may hold. The man in the right foreground has his arms folded across his chest. His look is more defiant almost questioning the viewer about what they intend to do about his plight. One man has a makeshift patch on his eye which makes him look even more vulnerable. I suppose Shahn and other Realist painters believed that through the moving nature of the subjects of their works it would help remind everybody of the horrors of life we could face and counsel us to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. Sadly, as in the case of war with its tragedies and horrors, we rarely learn by our mistakes and seem to always repeat our mistakes. There seems to be little we can do but shake our heads sympathetically as we view these Social Realist paintings and can only hope that we ourselves are never touched by similar tragedies.