Throughout the history of art there have always been a few artists who went beyond decoration and design to employ their talents for commentary about the impact of events in their times. Much like his European predecessors Breugel, Goya, and Daumier, Ben Shahn's aesthetic is closely intertwined with his emotional reaction to subjects and events depicted. While Shahn was a master of many styles and media, he developed a consistently recognizable style that carries the impact of his feelings along to the viewer.
From the beginnings of his artistic career Shahn championed the plight of the victims and the downtrodden, swept aside in the increasing frenzy of 20th Century America. His subjects ranged from war-torn angst to social decay and the lonely isolation of the individual. He strove to reintroduce humanity to an increasingly impersonal world.
Ben Shahn emigrated with his family at age eight from Lithuania to New York in 1906. His apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer defined his artistic direction and style. Shahn's initiation consisted of 4 years of grinding stones and "making letters - thousands and thousands of letters until I should know to perfection every curve, every serif, every thick element of a letter and every thin one". Although he was employed to learn the trade of commercial printmaking, Shahn later wrote, "If learning the craft was my ostensible reason and purpose, my private one was to learn to draw - and to draw always better and better."
By his own admission, printmaking was primarily a means for Shahn to disseminate his drawings. In addition to printmaking, he was a noted photographer who once shared a studio with social documentarian Walker Evans. Shahn produced his first artistic prints in lithographic tusche while employed with the WPA and struggling to establish his career as a painter. In many ways, the more democratic medium of printmaking was the ideal medium for Shahn to get his message out to the masses.
Shahn pushed the boundaries of printmaking, trying many different and novel methods. He produced color lithographs, serigraphs and even several photo-offset posters for the Office of War Information during World War II. He also experimented with hand coloring, applied gold leaf, and printed text, in both English and Hebrew.
Shahn's late work was often less politically confrontational and more personal and spiritual. In addition to his art, Shahn was also a prominent writer, lecturer and teacher. He disliked labels and most likely would have rejected any of these titles. He stated, "I believe that if it were left to the artist to choose their own labels, most would choose none". Ben Shahn died in1968 in New York and his works can be found in nearly every major American museum including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institute, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
"Society cannot grow upon negatives…perhaps Humanism and Individualism are the logical heirs to our earlier, more mystical beliefs… But in any case, if we are to have values, a spiritual life, a culture, these things must find their imagery and their interpretation through the arts."
– Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn Exhibition - Press Release
Ben Shahn: Man With a Cause
Ben Shahn: Three Chairs
More works by Ben Shahn:
At George Krevsky Gallery