Ben Shahn (American, born Lithuania, 1898 – 1969) is one of the most important American artists in the era of the Great Depression and World War II. His highly individual style and social activist message was ahead of his time. Indeed, he preempted the widespread acceptance of the activist approach in later modern and contemporary art. His use of prints and posters, media for the masses, allowed his message to reach a greater audience. This has allowed Nest Egg Auctions to sell multiple examples of his art.
Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1898. He immigrated to the United States at the age of eight. He was fascinated by words and typography as well as art from an early age. The interweaving of text and image would become a major hallmark of Shahn’s art. He studied art at New York University, City College of New York, the National Academy of Design, and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière of Paris. In 1932, Shahn reached widespread acclaim for his painting series, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. The series was also Shahn’s first major foray into making political statements with his art, something that would define his art for the rest of his career.
The Great Depression
Shahn’s artistic ideals of social activism found fertile soil during the Great Depression. As Americans were struggling to survive, they grew more outraged at perceived social issues. Economic inequality and the mistreatment of the working classes were especially hot topics, and close to Shahn’s heart. Shahn, like other artists during the Depression, did work for the state-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and celebrated the working man.
Ben Shahn and FDR
Shahn also found a fellow traveler in President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945), the reformist Democrat who championed many of the causes that Shahn also supported. It is no surprise, then, that Shahn produced a campaign poster for Roosevelt in 1944. Nest Egg Auctions has had the opportunity to sell one such poster in 2018. In this poster, we see FDR’s face surrounded by the hands of peoples of all races, and a child held up. We see buttons that celebrate labor unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Most strikingly, we see the words “OUR FRIEND” emblazoned at the top of the poster, presenting Roosevelt not simply as a politician, but a true friend to the working classes.
World War II
The Office of War Information hired Shahn in 1942 to make posters to support the United States’ war effort in the Second World War. Shahn, as a European Jewish immigrant to the United States, was mortified by the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. Thus, Shahn’s posters during the War often called to mind the atrocities of Germany.
This is Nazi Brutality
In one example from 1942, entitled This is Nazi Brutality, we see a man standing in a brick courtyard with a bag over his head. It is clear that this figure is about to be executed by firing squad. The title is stamped in bold red letters, and explanatory text is presented like a news wire. Shahn reports on the execution of all men in the Czechoslovakian city of Lidice, and the transportation of all the women and children to concentration camps. Thus, without showing us a drop of blood, Ben Shahn is making an image that turns the stomach and inspires anger in our hearts. The hooded man, however, is not cowering and meek. Shahn shows him from below, standing like a heroic statue. Shahn’s message is not to be afraid of the Nazis, but to defeat them.
Ben Shahn was a major force in the United States art scene after the end of the War. After the brutality of the Second World War, Shahn’s work took on the cause of peace and social justice. His works often drew on the traditional imagery of peace, like the dove and olive spring. His overall aesthetic also drew on Japanese landscape paintings, and signed his name along with a version of a red signature seal. This is demonstrated well by one of his late prints, I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great (1965).
I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great
In this print, we see a dove surrounded by the text of the poem “The Truly Great” by British poet Stephen Spender (1909 – 1995) and names of those honored by Shahn. Spender’s poem honors those who made a difference in the world. The names Shahn writes are those who made a difference for peace and equality, like journalist Jacob Riis (Danish-American, 1849 – 1914). In 1890, Riis wrote a famous book entitled How the Other Half Lives, which portrayed the horrific squalor in which the working classes lived in New York City tenements. Riis’ book struck a nerve, and quickly became a rallying cry on the political left. It is no surprise, then, that Shahn included “J. Riis” as one of the names of the Truly Great in his print. Riis had made a difference and an impact in the cause of equality.
Ben Shahn died in New York City in 1969. A titanic force in American art, Ben Shahn’s work has continued in popularity ever since. His influence on American art, with his activist message of peace, equality, and social justice, has been incalculable.
Selling Ben Shahn at Nest Egg Auctions
Nest Egg Auctions has had the opportunity to sell a number of the prints of Ben Shahn, highlighted here. His vast importance and influence on American art and culture makes his works of art always sought after. If you have a work of art by Ben Shahn, we would love to see it, and to have the opportunity to sell it for you.