The Jewish Museum

New York, New York

(212) 423-3200



 

Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn

 

The Jewish Museum will present Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn from November 8, 1998 to March 7, 1999. Commemorating the centennial year of this acclaimed American artist, the exhibition will feature 52 of the finest paintings created by Ben Shahn between 1936 and 1965. Tracing the development of the artist's career and focusing primarily on his mature style as it evolved following the trauma of World War II and its aftermath, Common Man, Mythic Vision is the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. since 1976, when The Jewish Museum presented a retrospective, Ben Shahn: 1898-1969. Works on view are being loaned from major museums and private collections in the United States, Japan, Sweden and The Vatican. A sampling of Shahn's photographs, advertisements, printed books, masks, and magazine articles is also included, along with a five-minute video of excerpts from two 1960s television interviews with the artist.

Following its New York showing, Common Man, Mythic Vision~ The Paintings of Ben Shahn will travel to the Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, PA (March 28 to June 27, 1999), and the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI (July 25 to October 31, 1999). The exhibition has been organized by The Jewish Museum, NY. Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn is sponsored by professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP.The work of Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was enormously celebrated during the artist's lifetime, and was widely promoted - and collected - in this country and abroad.

Known for his socially concerned realist art, from the 1940s through the end of his career Shahn began to make his works less specific critiques of social issues, developing a more introspective style. Through his art, he shared his own experiences and the historical events of his time, transforming them into meaningful commentary on social justice, humanitarian causes, and spiritual redemption.

Highlights of Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn include: Shahn's nostalgic reflections of his boyhood, in such works as Portrait of Myself When Young (1943) and New York (1947); key Social Realist works from the New Deal era such as two preliminary paintings for Jersey Homesteads Mural (c. 1936), Scotts Run, West Virginia (1937) and Myself Among the Churchgoers (1939); his responses to the haunting effects of World War II and its aftermath in Italian Landscape (1943-44), Liberation (1945), and Spring (1947); selections from the series The Saga of The Lucky Dragon (1960-62), inspired by the fate of a Japanese fishing crew exposed to American nuclear testing in March 1954 in the Marshall Islands; and Shahn's interest in biblical themes, Jewish traditions and the Hebrew language, expressed in Maimonides (1954) and Ram 's Horn and Menorah (1958). The exhibition ends with Portrait of Dag Hammarskjold (1962), completed around the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, 100 years ago, Benjamin Zwi Shahn was the oldest of five children in a traditional Orthodox Jewish family. Shahn emigrated with his mother, brother and sister to Brooklyn in 1906. There, they joined his father, a socialist, who had been exiled to Siberia for his subversive activities. Growing up in America, the young Shahn gradually moved away from the religious traditions of Judaism and established a secular Jewish identity aligned with the causes of labor and social reform during the 1930s.Training as a lithographer's apprentice helped shape Shahn's mature painting style. Following study in Paris in the 1920s, Shahn shared a studio with the photographer Walker Evans and had his first solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1930. During the ensuing decade, he created works of art in response to the social, economic and political conditions of the Depression - in a style known as Social Realism. He became known as a socially and politically engaged artist and in 1932 gained fame with his series on the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian immigrant anarchists.

From 1934 to 1942, Shahn worked on various government-sponsored projects, including federally commissioned murals and as a photographer for the New Deal Resettlement Administration. He traveled throughout Pennsylvania and Delaware, and ten Southern states, gaining new insights into the character and diversity of America and its people. Shahn was deeply affected by this experience. His resulting disappointment with partisan political ideologies and his response to the horrors of World War II led to a significant change in his work. He moved from Social Realism - the American art style of the 1930s dedicated to social and political reform - toward a more subjective mode of painting.

Confronted by World War II, many of his contemporaries turned to abstraction, but Shahn continued to work within a narrative tradition. Yet, like them, he turned to the symbolic rendering of biblical and mythological themes. In allegorical works, he universalized both personal experiences and the trauma of World War II, the Holocaust, the nuclear age, and the Cold War.

"From the Jewish school of Vilkomir to an acculturated, secular life in Brooklyn to a resurgence of Jewish feeling and heritage in his later years, Ben Shahn's dedication to humanitarian causes and his belief in the regenerative powers of art offer a fascinating example of the paradigmatic path taken in the life of an immigrant American Jewish artist, " notes Susan Chevlowe, curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition has been organized by Susan Chevlowe, Associate Curator, The Jewish Museum with Stephen Polcari, consulting curator for the exhibition and New York Director, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. An illustrated 192-page exhibition catalog with 32 color plates and 82 black and white illustrations, published by Princeton University Press and The Jewish Museum, New York, featuring essays by Susan Chevlowe, Diana L. Linden, Frances K. Pohl and Stephen Polcari, will be available for $45 hardcover and $21.95 paperback in the Museum's Cooper Shop.

Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn is sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP. Major support was received through the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The catalog was published with the aid of a publications fund established by the Dorot Foundation.


From top to bottom: Ben Shahn: Myself Among the Churchgoers, 1039, tempera on masonite, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, MN, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, New York, 1947, tempera on paper mounted on panel, The Jewish Museum, New York, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Spring, 1947, tempera on masonite, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1948, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Bookshop, Hebrew Books, Holy Day Books, 1953, tempera on wood panel, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Photograph copyright (c) the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Portrait of Dag Hammarskjold , 1962, tempera on plywood, National Museum, Stockholm, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Composition for Clarinets and Tin Horn, 1951, tempera on panel, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Photograph copyright (c) the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

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