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Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life

Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life

by Howard Greenfeld

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   Beginning in the thirties, he created bold and powerful paintings of often controversial subjects, and in particular his portraits of Sacco and Vanzetti caused a storm whenever they were exhibited. After working as an assistant to Diego Rivera on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural, he began creating his own arresting murals--in Washington, New York,


   Beginning in the thirties, he created bold and powerful paintings of often controversial subjects, and in particular his portraits of Sacco and Vanzetti caused a storm whenever they were exhibited. After working as an assistant to Diego Rivera on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural, he began creating his own arresting murals--in Washington, New York, and New Jersey--which are among the finest such works ever painted in this country. He also excelled as a photographer as one of the distinguished group known as the FSA photographers, which included Dorothea Lange and his close friend Walker Evans. His life  crossed the paths of many others, too, including Albert Einstein, Alexander Calder, William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish, and S. J. Perelman.

During World War II, he produced some of the most striking and effective propaganda posters, before returning again to painting, always choosing subjects that touched a nerve and were just as often politically powerful.
Shahn also entered the world of advertising, but completely on his own terms, and was respected for it. His life was always involved directly with his times, and he was a member of the intellectual community throughout his career, as well as a courageous political activist. His unique, unforgettable work won him shows in museums all over America, including the Museum of Modern  Art.
Ben Shahn is the first complete life of the artist, and it is illustrated throughout with his photographs, pictures, and paintings.

Editorial Reviews

David Cohen
...Greenfeld's approach scrupulously balances the personal and the political to provide a rounded portrait....[The] book gives a convincing sense of a determined individual making his mark....Readers are left to infer for themselves a connection between his personal angst and his affinity with the oppressed. —The New York Times Book Review
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
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) is among the most important American artists of this century. In this first illustrated biography of Shahn's full career, Greenfeld, founder of Orion Press and a friend of Shahn in his later years, traces the artist's life from his birth in Lithuania through his emigration to the United States at age eight, his early apprenticeship as a commercial lithographer, and his involvement with social causes in the 1920s and 1930s. Shahn's important work for various New Deal art projects (as an administrator, painter, muralist, and photographer) is explored in great detail. Making extensive use of archival sources and with the cooperation of Shahn's widow, the artist Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Greenfeld illuminates diverse aspects of Shahn's life. While placing Shahn's work in the context of contemporary American art (Shahn eschewed the abstract trends that periodically swept over his compatriots), Greenfeld also explores the often unpleasant but revealing circumstances of his personal life. Highly recommended for collections with an interest in American art or 20th-century biography.--Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Institution Libs., Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
Although he knew Ben Shahn, had access to his papers, and spent many hours interviewing his widow and adult children, Greenfeld's biography remains curiously dispassionate.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Early Years:
Kovno and Vilkomir

In 1906, shortly after Ben Shahn arrived in the United States from Lithuania, he became aware of what he later called "the whole business of the Mayflower and ancestry." He was eight years old and had been taught that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great biblical figures, were his ancestors, and they seemed unquestionably more directly related to him than did Columbus and the Pilgrims. It was puzzling. He recognized that he had parents and two sets of grandparents and many aunts and uncles, but he knew nothing of the kind of ancestry that appeared valued in his new country. In an attempt to establish this lineage, he nagged his father incessantly. He knew that his father was a woodcarver, as were his father's father and his father's grandfather, but he wanted to know more. Finally, exasperated, the young boy's father answered by drawing a picture of a man on a gibbet. When Ben wanted to know who that was, his father angrily answered that the man was an ancestor, a horse thief, adding, "If I ever catch you asking about ancestors . . . ! Only what you do counts, not what your ancestors did."

In spite of these words, there is no doubt that many of Ben's characteristics can be traced to his ancestors. His father, Hessel, born in 1871, was a skilled craftsman who loved to work with his hands, as would his son. He taught himself to draw at an early age, as would Ben, and he was a born storyteller, just as his son would become, in his art as well as in his conversation. Finally, Hessel was an idealist, whose liberal political convictions must surely have influenced Ben.

Ben's mother, Gittel Lieberman, born in Lithuania in 1872, was descended from a family of peasants, but her father educated himself and became an innkeeper, and later even worked as a schoolteacher. She, too, was a natural storyteller, whose fanciful tales delighted her son. One of many children, she was apprenticed as a kind of indentured servant to a wealthy family of wholesale grocers. Because she was a girl, she wasn't taught to read or write Lithuanian--she was taught these skills by her husband, after their marriage--though she learned to work as a bookkeeper, making out invoices in a language she couldn't understand. Gittel was strong-willed and keenly intelligent, as was her son. She was often described as quarrelsome and angry, as Ben would become.

"Most facts are lies; all stories are true," Ben told his friend Edwin Rosskam. And Ben told many stories. If a large number of these were invented, they are still worth recounting; they reveal as much about the artist as would the truth. He was the sum of his stories.

Certainly his memories of his earliest years in Kovno, where he was born on September 12, 1898, were, inevitably, confused--and, as he admitted, most likely inaccurate, since he spent only four years of his life there. These early memories include brutal incidents of religious discrimination and political terror. At the time of Ben's birth, Kovno, where more than 25,000 Jews lived (they made up approximately 30 percent of the town's population) was a center of Jewish cultural activity. These Jews lived in their own section, separated from the Gentiles. Crossing the non-Jewish sector was so dangerous that they walked through it hurriedly, never strolling in a leisurely fashion. They were even harassed at home and at work. Many Russian soldiers were stationed in Kovno, and when these recruits, most of them far from home, drank too much, they would smash the windows of the Jewish-owned homes and shops. Ben remembered a rock coming through the window of the Shahn home at least once. His family knew, however, that it would be futile to protest since any complaint to the authorities would be considered anti-czarist and result in harsh punishment.

Not all of Ben's memories were unhappy ones, however. On occasion he enjoyed playing with friendly soldiers on the parade ground where military drills and maneuvers were held. In Kovno, he ate ice cream for the first and only time before moving to America. An Armenian or a Turk carried on his head a huge wooden bucket filled with a container of the sweet frozen dessert, packed in ice. There was an uncle who played him to sleep with his trumpet each night when he stayed with Ben's family while on furlough from the army. And Ben remembered with great affection his father, whose stories entertained him, and who carried him on his shoulders to large gatherings, most likely socialist meetings.

Ben was too young to remember the birth of his brother Philip in 1900, but he did recall the birth of his sister Hattie in June 1902, when he was not yet four years old. She was born in a small room, separated from a larger one by a curtain with a peacock design; an old man--a cousin or a neighbor--sat on a nearby stool, cutting his toenails so close to the flesh that each toe bled.

That year of 1902 was a traumatic one for the young child. Not long after the birth of his sister, his father, politically active as an enemy of the czarist government, was arrested by the authorities. According to Gittel, her husband had been framed--revolutionary leaflets, she maintained, had been planted on him. However, in spite of her pleas, Hessel was exiled to Siberia, leaving his wife alone to bring up their three small children, and his eldest son heartbroken at the loss of a father.

Shortly after Hessel's departure, Gittel decided to move back to Vilkomir, forty miles away, where she and her husband had been born. A river divided the town, and the two parts were connected by a bridge. Most of Vilkomir's more than 7,000 Jews (half the population of the town) lived "across the river." Gittel's friends, as well as her parents and Hessel's, still lived in Vilkomir, and she felt certain that life would be far easier for a single mother there than in Kovno.

In Vilkomir, Ben formed one of the deepest attachments of his life, with his paternal grandfather. He also first learned to express himself through drawing, and began to question the fundamental doctrines of his religion.

Ben's paternal grandfather, Wolf-Leyb ("Wolf-Lion"), was a huge man, known throughout the village for his enormous strength and for his kindness and warmth. He became, for his young grandson, not only a surrogate father but also a genuine hero. He was so successful as a carpenter, making baroque furniture for a pope of the Orthodox church, that he eventually had half a dozen men working for him and therefore could spend all the time he wanted entertaining Ben. He did this with great love and enthusiasm. He constantly made things for the boy, carving out a little cart with a goat and any number of other toys, as well as teaching Ben how to carve objects himself--most memorably, a multiple-link chain, out of a single piece of wood. Wolf-Lion was always kind to Ben, even while disciplining him, which he did with tenderness.

Ben's maternal grandmother, a tiny woman, was also unfailingly sweet to him. Her husband, however, Ben's first teacher, was a redheaded tyrant, who was luckily soon replaced by a somewhat more understanding instructor. And despite the tyrant's brief reign, for the most part Ben, the oldest grandchild, was spoiled, so much so that his mother summoned help from her own brother, a rigid disciplinarian. According to Ben, he resembled a bearded Protestant minister with his black coat and white collar, and he had no influence on him whatsoever.

One of Ben's childhood memories was of a powerful fire that destroyed most of Vilkomir in 1902. Terrified, he walked through the charred town with his grandfather, whose five or six houses, since they were on the outskirts, were among the few not damaged. It was frightening: the fire bursting out everywhere, hundreds of people standing in the shallow river, carrying chests of drawers and bedding, in an effort to save themselves and their belongings. Lines of men formed a bucket brigade from the river, and in the background the blinding light of flames illuminated the burning town. This devastating fire left an indelible impression on him. Raging flames became a symbol of destructive power in many of his paintings and drawings.

Most important, in Vilkomir Ben learned to draw. Drawing came naturally to him; and he was always encouraged to draw whatever he could not explain in words. Because very little paper was available, he made most of these drawings on the flyleaves and inside covers of books. In Love and Joy About Letters, published in 1963, Ben described his first drawing, a portrait of his uncle Lieber, a member of the Russian cavalry, who, Ben was told, rode a horse and was very far away. Though he had never seen or met him, the boy was certain that his uncle was famous, because his family spoke of him so often and with so much respect. He wrote of this portrait:

"Since the only military installation that I had ever known was the striped sentinel box at the caserne at the end of our street, I drew my uncle sitting on his horse in front of that. The stripes were nice, but the horse troubled me because it looked like a cow--at least it looked more like a cow than a horse." To make sure that no one mistook the horse for a cow, he placed a caption, "Uncle Lieber Sitting on His Horse," beneath the drawing.

Ben's early formal education consisted almost exclusively of Bible and Talmudic studies. A precocious child, he was placed in a class with older students. They worked diligently for nine hours a day, studying the Bible, putting letters together to make its words, and studying its prayers and psalms. Discipline was severe; students who arrived late were whipped. Ben learned one important lesson at school: to despise injustice and fight it vigorously whenever and wherever he found it. He was enraged, for instance, by his teacher's practice of punishing the entire class for something that only one student had done. He hadn't done it, he would insist, and he wouldn't tell who had (if he knew). He categorically refused to pay for something for which he was not responsible. "I hate injustice," he told an interviewer in 1944. "I guess that's about the only thing that I really do hate. I've hated injustice ever since I read a story in school."

He repeated that story throughout his lifetime. It was a part of his Bible studies, and it concerned the building of Solomon's temple and the carrying of the Ark of the Covenant into that temple. According to the story, the Ark was to be brought in by two oxen; it rested precariously on a pole laced between them. The Lord warned that the pole would inevitably totter, but demanded that no one touch it since it was God's Ark, and He would take care of it. This was a test of faith. Of course, the Ark did totter, and one man did touch it, instinctively, in order to stop it from falling. Immediately, as he had been warned, the well-intentioned man was struck dead.

Young Ben, enraged, began to argue with his teacher. God was unjust, he insisted, and he refused to return to school until this injustice was officially admitted. After a week or ten days, and endless discussions between his teacher and his grandfather, Ben returned to school. "I must have compromised," he told an interviewer many years later, "probably my first compromise."

At this early age, Ben began to challenge the fundamental beliefs of Judaism. In the course of a Saturday class, reserved for questions, he boldly asked the rabbi, "Who made God?"--and the response was a slap in the face. He also tested the laws of his religion. According to those laws, it was forbidden to touch the candlesticks or have anything to do with fire on the Sabbath. At a large Sabbath dinner, however, Ben did touch the lighted candles, just as they were about to fall. Certain that something awful would happen to him because of his defiant act, he was puzzled when he was not punished. He was not chastised, either, when, on another occasion, he defied the laws of his religion by keeping a coin in his pocket throughout the Sabbath. He was, he noted later in his life, being brought up with values that were unacceptable to him.

Meet the Author

Howard Greenfeld is the author of three acclaimed biographies--of Puccini, Caruso, and the art collector Albert C. Barnes. Greenfeld was also the founder of Orion Press. He lived in France and Italy for many years, where he published English-language translations of such writers as Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, and Jean Piaget. There, he became friendly with Shahn in the last years of the artist's life. As a result of this friendship, Shahn's wife, Bernarda, herself an artist, agreed to allow Greenfeld access to her memories and mementos of Shahn.   Howard Greenfeld lives in New York City.

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