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The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn: Developing a Social Conscience

January 29 - April 24, 2005


The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown is presenting The Visual Literature of Bernarda Bryson-Shahn: Developing a Social Conscience, a selection of 1930s-era works on paper by one of America's most distinguished 20th century artists, who built a record of activism and creative production spanning eight decades.

Ms. Bryson-Shahn, who passed away in December 2004 at the age of 101, began her career as a writer, printmaker and illustrator, and was known in recent decades for her paintings. Born in Athens, Ohio in 1903, Ms. Shahn's family was deeply involved in journalism and social activism, both of which would inform her life and work. (right: Bernarda Bryson-Shahn, A Mule and a Plow, n.d., lithograph on paper, H. 43 x W. 30 inches, Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. )

Produced as part of the Works Progress Administration documentary project, the prints featured in this exhibition explore the difficult life of the American worker and farmer in the 1930s. "Her work is an eloquent reminder of a life of passion and commitment," Paone says, "and is also evidence of the value of art to teach us about the commonality of our experience."

A lifelong activist on behalf of the disenfranchised, Ms. Shahn described President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a philosophical humanist." Speaking with an interviewer for the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art in 1983 [1], she said: "In those days it was another time of people who were disinherited. That's what Roosevelt meant when he talked about the forgotten man. He provided for human beings something they could really believe in." In the Archives interview she recalled a humorous example of an activist demonstration she participated in:

The way these things worked was that we would organize a demonstration, and then the police would come and try to divert us from being in front of the Whitney or whatever. Then the Whitney would ask a representation of the artists to come in and talk. I would usually be one of three who would go in and talk to Mrs. Force. I don't mean that she was mean or anything of that sort, but she wasn't very much interested in us. There were some very good artists among us. Maybe it was just that I didn't react very pleasantly to her. I don't like Mrs. McMahon either. Some of the other people around them I liked very much. The rivalry between Mrs. McMahon and Mrs. Force was very warm.
Another thing that I used to do which was very funny -- You know that I had worked on a newspaper and my father was a newspaperman; all my friends, too. I knew newspapers and their ways very, very well. When we were going to have a demonstration, I knew perfectly well that the Times and the Tribune did not know the names of their reporters, so I would call the Tribune and say, "This is Bernarda Bryson speaking; I'm down on Eighth Street. There is a very large demonstration of artists down here. I suggest that you send a photographer." They would ask me for all the details -- you know I had called in stories too much before. I knew how to call in a story. They would take the story, and they always ran it. They often sent a photographer; and they always ran the story, [chuckle] which was very, very funny. You know, we were having a very good time, I must say too, doing all that.

In 1933 she was working as a journalist and was sent to New York to interview the muralist Diego Rivera. There she met Ben Shahn, [2] then Mr. Rivera's assistant, who would become her life companion. They married in 1969, shortly before Ben Shahn's death.

The pair drove across the U.S. in the mid-1930s, documenting rural life for the Resettlement.Administration. They also collaborated on two still-existent murals during the New Deal period: one in what is now an elementary school in Roosevelt, N.J. and the other in the Bronx General Post Office. As she told the Archives of American Art in the 1983 interview: "The things that we were doing in the New Deal -- the things that we were doing were so exciting; they were inspiring, meaningful. It was probably the most thrilling time that I've ever gone through."

In mid career her work focused mainly on illustration. Among the children's titles she wrote and illustrated were "The Zoo of Zeus" (1964) and "Gilgamesh" (1967). It was later in life, in the early 1970s following the death of her husband, that she took up painting steadily and became recognized as an artist in her own right.

In 2002 the Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University held a retrospective of Ms. Shahn's work. In the news release for the show Nancy Einreinhofer, director of the Ben Shahn Galleries said: "Bernarda Bryson Shahn has dedicated her entire life to art... The early part of her career, the 1920s and 1930s, was dominated by the various print mediums, mainly etching and lithography. What we might view as Bernarda's mid-career was dedicated primarily to illustration. She routinely created illustrations for many of the prominent journals of the period and also did several books. For the last thirty years or so, Bernarda has been painting. There will be about ten paintings in the exhibit, about 50 works in all. All through this long life, Bernarda has been concerned with political and social issues, and always, always she has been the superb draftsman. Those are the constants in this work: the social conscience and the artistic ability to render the concept."

In the Archives interview she said of her illustrations:

I love doing illustrations. I'm sure some of that literary element enters into what I do, but they're never specific stories. The other thing that I always feel about painting is that you raise a question and the person who looks at it -- Even while you're working on it, it's still a question. If you answer it, then everybody is through with it. It's answered. I think Ben did that, although he never said it. That's what I like to do. I love surrealist art, but to be overtly surrealist can be hackneyed. It can be such a jaded kind of thing. I love Magritte and I love Max Ernst. They're terrific and they did that; they did what they did (I don't care too much for Dali). They did what they did. It's not for me to go ahead and try to rediscover what they so beautifully explored. I have another friend -- he has recently died -- Domenico Gnoli, in Italy, who is a marvelous surrealist painter. He created a kind of observation -- something they now are calling Italy hyporealism. He would look at something like the back of somebody's head and, in the utmost detail, paint the way the hair comes out of the neck -- a little curl, maybe a hairpin hanging down or something like that. Or he would do a button or a necktie or the inside of a woman's shoe. Oh, they are just heavenly paintings (and they're very sought after). When he was first doing this kind of thing, he did one I absolutely loved. There's a chair -- everybody who knows him or his mother knows this chair. The chair has a head lying in the seat, complete with necktie -- with a collar and the necktie -- but just the head lying in the chair. [laugh] That's very delightful. If you're going to do that, you've got to commit yourself to it completely. You have to be constantly on the search for visual puns.

Ms. Shahn's one-woman exhibitions included shows at Midtown Galleries in New York in 1983; at the Ben Shahn Galleries of William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, in 2002; and at the Susan Teller Gallery in Lower Manhattan last year in honor of her 100th birthday. Ms. Shahn's work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions. Ms. Shahn passed away on December 12, 2004 at her home in Roosevelt, NJ.

The exhibition is co-curated by Mary Veronica Sweeney, an artist and writer from New York City, and Peter Paone, artist and former apprentice to Ms. Shahn's late husband, the painter Ben Shahn. Sponsored by Mary Lou and Andrew Abruzzese and the Pineville Tavern, it will be on view in the Pfundt Gallery in Doylestown from January 29 through April 24, 2005.



1. Click here to read the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art interview with Bernarda Bryson Shahn conducted by Liza Kirwin In Roosevelt, New Jersey April 29, 1983

2. RL readers may also enjoy these additional articles and essays:


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