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Honest Art, Fit For Purpose

Words:

Edd Norval
April 22, 2019

Exiled to Siberia as a young child due to his father's revolutionary activity in Lithuanian, Ben Shahn's art was indelibly impacted by his youthful experiences. After years travelling the world to find a form of art that resonated with him, he stripped it all back to his youth to create honest art that aimed to make real social change.

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Embarking on the typical voyage of a young artist, Shahn and his wife Tillie traversed North Africa and Europe, hoping to experience the world beyond their American-centric view, the place both had grown to call home. For Shahn, it was where his family found refuge after their Siberian exile.


With a formal art education, the enlightenment gained through his travels seemed dishonest to his own sensibilities, his personal thoughts and feelings on the world around him. Modernist art was the flavour of the time in the mid 1920s, but Shahn had something else burning in his DNA that he'd overlooked and separated from art.


Growing up in a highly politicised environment, it eventually became clear the power art holds in creating useful social dialogue, in breaking down barriers limited by education, prior knowledge or language. His work was a sort of counter-propaganda and it was in a criminal trial that an opportunity came to make an impact in his new realm.

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Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-American anarchists controversially on trial for the murder of a guard and paymaster during an armed robbery. Conflicting evidence and anti-immigration overtones in pre-trial statements were amongst the numerous aspects of the case that pointed to an unfair sentencing. Found guilty, the pair were to be electrocuted. Riots in major cities around the world kept their fight alive, eventually forcing an investigation. The verdict was upheld though, and the two were sent to death on the electric chair.


An immigrant himself, Shahn found in Sacco and Vanzetti two kindred spirits and two subjects for his earliest ventures into political art. In a series of paintings and portraits of the pair on trial, defying the artistic conventions of the time, Shahn communicated his thoughts and the era's zeitgeist through his 23 gouache pieces. His unconventional style was well received, giving him the confidence to continue along the same path.


A subsequent series on labour leader Tom Mooney saw Shahn receive plaudits from the painters he had travelled the world to learn about. It was in being true to himself that his paintings were able to best communicate his thoughts and feelings on art and its potential. Establishing himself as a champion of left-wing causes, Shahn joined photojournalist Walker Evans in documenting life in America and the pair travelled around the country to record their findings from ground level.

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Coming into contact with many labour and work committees, groups built around the purpose of protecting working-class interests and rights, pushed Shahn's career into a new direction. Rather than working solely as an artist, he became a designer and illustrator, creating posters and pamphlets for these organisations to help better communicate their ideas. He had his art, but he also saw the artistic potential his work held.


Expanding his scope to more commercial and media based interests, Shahn collaborated with Time magazine and Harper's to bring his political art to a wider audience. The subsequent work, alongside his in-demand and acclaimed mural works, gained him a certain standing in American art and he was sent to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1954 with Willem de Kooning as a note of recognition.


His artistic life began to merge into his academic one, the subjects always finding themselves overlapping, incidentally, he was latterly heavily acclaimed for his works on the ideas, concepts and theory behind art seeing Shahn awarded honorary doctorates from Princeton and Harvard University.


Shahn believed art served a purpose. For him, that was to communicate ideas. His academic work explored both his thoughts on American life and the way that art can help to communicate and challenge them. Part of this was the dissolution of the artist/audience boundary. It was, as evidenced by his many trips and projects, a collaborative process. Shahn's art was created as he lived, honest and truthful, challenging everything that stood in the way of the common good.

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