In 1957, American artist Ben Shahn (Kaunas, 1898–New York, 1969), born to Jewish Lithuanian parents, wrote On Nonconformity, one of six lectures he delivered at Harvard University. In the text he maintained that nonconformity is an indispensable precondition not just for significant artistic production but for all great social change. This thinking runs through a body of work that, spanning four decades, explores issues such as unemployment, discrimination, totalitarianism, militarism and threats to freedom of expression.
The retrospective examines Shahn’s successive “nonconformities” in a thematic presentation of multiple media and archival documentation, which together demonstrate his lifelong commitment to progressive, humanist causes and reveal the underappreciated complexities of his aesthetic vision. In times shaped by abstract expressionist and other avant-garde artforms, Shahn championed the figurative because he believed that, counter to formalist doctrine, “form is the very shape of content.” Nevertheless, his figuration would shift and change. While historiography defines his work as representative of American social realism in the 1930s, by the end of the decade Shahn was engaged in what he would later refer to as “personal realism,” which applied to the observation of ordinary people in their daily environments.
In the early 1930s, Shahn addressed various causes célèbres, the injustice of which had been the subject of huge public controversy. Most notably, in 1931-1932, he produced a series on the trial and execution of Italian anarchist immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In the same period, he embarked upon his work as a photographer, which initially led him to depict New York in the Great Depression and, from 1935, to document living conditions in rural areas and small towns in the USA for the Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration (RA-FSA). His photographs would become part of a vast repository of images that, time and again, deeply informed his practice. He also received commissions for several public murals – referred to in the show as well – sponsored by the New Deal programmes of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.
At the beginning of the 1940s, Shahn created graphics condemning Nazi atrocities for the Office of War Information. He recorded testimonies of the devastation of the Second World War, writing: “At that time I painted only one theme, ‘Europa,’ you might call it.” Together with these works, marked by ruin and destruction, the exhibition also includes his more melancholic allegorical paintings, which resulted from the sorrow over the disasters of war. During and after the war, between 1944 and 1946, he was employed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations-Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC) to promote the cause of organized labour, producing a series of posters for the mobilisation of the union workers’ vote.
Later, in the early Cold War years of the 1950s, many of Shahn’s paintings – with symbolic and often cryptic representations of masks, circus motifs and individuals under threat – would protest the anti-communist hysteria and repressive tactics of what came to be known as “McCarthyism.” Among the other issues he examined in the same decade, and in the 1960s, are the absolute certainties of science – which he countered with scepticism – and warnings about the dire consequences of the nuclear arms race. He supported the goals and nonviolent disobedience strategies of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements until his death in 1969. As a coda, the exhibition features works that embrace themes of Judaism, spirituality, and sacred history, yet even these are infused with Shahn’s inimitable social conscience.