When Ben Shahn traveled to Europe in the 1920s, he went in search of the secrets of modern art, hoping to learn how to paint like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, or Paul Klee. Instead, Shahn learned that he wanted not to paint in a modern style but instead like a free man fighting for the rights of other free men. Born September 12, 1898, Shahn decided that a mostly realistic style, slightly askew, fit the askew world around him best. Years after the Sacco and Vanzetti trials revealed anti-immigrant prejudice in the United States’ judicial system, Shahn painted a series of works titled The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (above, one example, from 1931-1932). Echoing the protests heard around the world when the two innocent men were executed for their political beliefs under the pretense of a bank robbery and murder, Shahn paints the two men with an air of dignity denied to them in the courtroom. If not for the handcuffs binding them together, Sacco and Vanzetti could be any two men sitting beside one another. The simplicity of Shahn’s painting shows that Sacco and Vanzetti could, indeed, be any two men and that their fate could be anyone’s if the powerful elite remained unchecked by the masses.
In The Abu Ghraib Effect (reviewed here), Steven F. Eisenman lauded Shahn as one of the few artists in the history of the Western art tradition that didn’t buy into the embedded meme of violence and cruelty. He ranks Shahn up there with Goya, William Hogarth, Leon Golub, and a few select others as standing up to the larger bulk of art that affirms torture of all kinds. Shahn’s poster for the United States Government during World War II, This Is Nazi Brutality (above, from 1943), not only struck a blow against torture then, but hauntingly looked forward to the disgrace of Abu Ghraib and the infamous photographs of Satar Jabar, aka, “the hooded man on the box.” Shahn’s immense humanity compelled him to speak out against all forms of oppression, wherever he saw them. When The Nation looked to cover the Abu Ghraib case in their December 26, 2005 issue, they updated Shahn’s poster on their cover, proving that the cause of social justice is, indeed, timeless.
Although he was already in his sixties, the fires of protest in Shahn’s heart still raged during the tempestuous 1960s. When TIME Magazine wanted to put the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on their cover, they asked Shahn to paint him (above, from 1965). Shahn chose to depict MLK at the height of one of his great oratory moments, speaking with the voice of a people longing to be free to enjoy the promises made by government so long unfulfilled. In some ways, Shahn seems a Quixotic figure, tilting forever at the windmills of oppression in America and seemingly always losing in the end to money and influence. I choose to see Shahn as a heroic figure, knowing the odds are against him yet always using his skill and vision to serve his fellow people not only in America but around the world. His life and his art still hold great meaning today, perhaps even more so than ever before.