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Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn

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Ben Shahn (1898-1969) has long been renowned for his Social Realist paintings of Depression-era America. Equally striking, however, are Shahn's extraordinary later works, which reveal a more introspective style as well as the evolution of a new allegorical and mythical pictorial language. This book combines beautiful reproductions of Shahn's art with essays by leading experts on his life and career to present a groundbreaking survey of his powerful and engaging mature style. The volume is published in conjunction...
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Overview

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) has long been renowned for his Social Realist paintings of Depression-era America. Equally striking, however, are Shahn's extraordinary later works, which reveal a more introspective style as well as the evolution of a new allegorical and mythical pictorial language. This book combines beautiful reproductions of Shahn's art with essays by leading experts on his life and career to present a groundbreaking survey of his powerful and engaging mature style. The volume is published in conjunction with a major traveling exhibition organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, to commemorate the centenary of Shahn's birth. The book contains more than one hundred illustrations, including thirty-two in color.

Susan Chevlowe opens the book by situating Shahn's art in the context of his long and remarkable career. She explains how Shahn became disillusioned with partisan ideologies of the 1930s, moving away in the 1940s and 1950s from critiques of specific social issues to explore universal human concerns and subjective experiences, including his own childhood memories. She also explores the increasing use of allegory, myth, and biblical imagery in Shahn's later work. Diana L. Linden examines the central importance of Shahn's secular Jewish identity in shaping his artistic responses to social and political issues, immigration, and war in murals created in the New Deal era. Stephen Polcari places Shahn in the context of his artistic contemporaries, showing how artists who worked in radically different styles--Regionalists, Expressionists, and Abstract Expressionists--were similarly engaged in a tense reexamination of the fate of humanity in the postwar period. Frances K. Pohl focuses on three of Shahn's most important paintings: Allegory (1948), Second Allegory (1953), and Third Allegory (1955). She argues that these works represent Shahn's search for a new symbolic language to express the personal and political upheavals of the post-Holocaust era marked by atomic weapons and the Cold War. The book also includes an illustrated chronology of Shahn's career, compiled by Howard Greenfeld, author of a major new biography of the artist.

This beautifully illustrated book will stimulate new critical and popular interest not only in the compelling late works but also in the entire career of a major American artist.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The centenary of socially conscious artist Ben Shahn's birth brings at least two salutes: an upcoming exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum and Greenfeld's (The Devil and Dr. Barnes) competent if workmanlike biography. "I hate injustice," Shahn (1898-1968) told an interviewer in 1944. "I've hated it ever since I read a story in school." That troubling biblical story of an unjust God is not the only influence that Greenfeld, the founder of Orion Press and a friend of Shahn's in the artist's later years, traces to his subject's youth. Explaining Shahn's graphic style of blending art and words, Greenfeld recalls the artist's childhood in Lithuania when, too poor to buy paper, he sketched in the margins of books. Once in the U.S., Shahn parlayed this skill into work as a commercial lithographer. His first steps as an independent artist coincided with the Depression, so Shahn's early career relied heavily on the Roosevelt administration's visionary schemes, described admirably by Greenfeld. In 1931, Shahn mixed social protest and art in a series that would set his course and make his reputation--The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although Greenfeld includes stories of Shahn's failed first marriage and his troubles during the Red Scare, the real human touches are rare (as in the description of Shahn's second wife baking a great many angel food cakes while helping her husband complete an egg tempera mural for a Bronx post office). Also, while Greenfeld repeats Clement Greenberg's charge that Shahn's work was "rarely effective beyond a surface facility," he offers little other critical analysis. For the biography of an artist usually associated with fiery commitment, this has a wooden, even perfunctory tone. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Nov.) FYI: In December, Princeton Unversity Press will publish Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn, a companion to the exhibition at the Jewish Museum. ($45 197p ISBN 0-691-00406-4)
Library Journal
With Social Realism out of favor with many critics, the artistic reputation of American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1968) has been in decline since his death. The recent interest in Shahn's life and work evidenced in the exhibition of his later pieces at the Jewish Museum in New York City and the recent biography by Howard Greenfeld (Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life, LJ 10/1/98) is refreshing. The four essays included in this catalog cover his life, his work on various New Deal art project murals, the relationship of his work to postwar American art, and the allegorical content of his disarmingly realist work. The color plates illustrating works in the exhibition are beautifully reproduced and provide a good introduction to Shahn's work and an excellent visual accompaniment to the Greenfeld biography. Recommended for collections with an interest in American art.--Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691004075
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/26/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 9.57 (w) x 11.38 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Table of Contents

Lenders to the Exhibition
Foreword
Preface
A Bull in a China Shop: An Introduction to Ben Shahn 3
Ben Shahn's New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene 37
Ben Shahn and Postwar American Art: Shared Visions 67
Allegory in the Work of Ben Shahn 111
Color Plates 145
Catalogue of the Exhibition 177
Chronology 183
Selected Bibliography 190
Index of Names 193
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