Ben Shahn is most well known for his fine art, illustrative and literary works. He was born in Lithuania to parents Joshua and Gittel, but his family was exiled when he was four for revolutionary activities of his father. Continuing his families ideals of speaking out against political injustices, Shahn’s work took on this very characteristic and would for the rest of his career.
He would study at the National Academy of Design, where his main interests would lie in lithography, graphic design, and egg tempera painting. During his travels Shan studied European masters but afterwards shifted his efforts toward a realist style that served as a vessel for his social/political commentary. This came to light in the form of a 23 piece series detailing the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists. Two Italian men had been convicted for murder and were sentenced to execution by electric chair after only a couple hours of deliberation. Afterwards, the case was deemed unconstitutional due to instances of racial-prejudices, refusal of retrial and disregard for political civic liberties.
Shan’s work was heavily influenced by current events as often as it was by the people he surrounded himself with. Walter Evans, Shan’s temporary roommate, worked alongside Dorothea Lange to document the Great depression in rural america under the Farm Services Administration. Evan’s influence can be seen in Shahn’s unflinching confrontation of the human figure, and his acknowledgment of flawed facial features. The same could be said for Mexican painter Diego Rivera. with the depiction of the human form and facial expressions, as well as the politically charged images that appeared in both Shahn and Riveras works. Shahn would assist Rivera with his Rockefeller mural, and would go on to apply Riveras methods to numerous federal mural commissions.
Following the Great Depression, Shahn worked for the Office of War Information. The OWI hired him to create anti-war pieces, but the companies idea of the sentiment differed greatly from Shahns. His pieces lacked the essential nationalistic views that the company advertised, and as a result the OWI would only publish two of his posters. . Afterwards Shahn changed directions and worked with large scale “general” publication companies, including CBS, Time, Fortune, Harpers, and others. Going forward, Shan set high bars for himself. Post OWI, he only accepted commissions that aligned with his moral values.
After the 1940’s, Shahn changed styles from what he called “Social Realism” to “Personal Realism,” which has been described as “a universal expression through the devices of symbolism and allegory, the stylized line, and the colorful palette…he could evoke worlds with a single pen stroke or color overlay.”
In summary, Shahn’s reputation lives on in that he was a powerful political activist who prioritized citizen voice. This is unquestionably displayed in his works surrounding Jewish identity, citizen voice, war protests, and civil political liberties. He inspires countless generations of artists who came after him, his unique style and combination of colour and line gaining a timeless reputation.