Ben Shahn entered the United States in 1906 at eight years old, receiving Ellis Island entry papers noting that he was of the “Hebrew Race”; in 1923, a New York newspaper’s art critic fulminated about “makers of Ellis Island art.” Against this backdrop, historian and author Diana L. Linden’s narrative examines how Shahn transmitted his experience and sensibilities into powerful public murals.
Shahn created his works under the aegis of federal agencies, the essence of this biography. By exemplifying the art of social consciousness, his talent and internal passions abilities enabled him to work under programs that gave the general public opportunities to see socially conscious murals in United States Postal Service buildings and elsewhere. To Shahn, the economic depression of the 1930s was the focus of his vision: “I felt very strongly the whole social impact of that depression… I felt completely in harmony with the times. I don’t think I’ve felt that way before or since.” He painted farm workers among laborers of all kinds, including women.
Linden notes that Ben Shahn was the only artist of note to include an image of a uniformed Nazi in a major work, a New Deal-era mural. She matches her Jewish sensibility to that of Shahn when relating the mural in the Hightstown Jersey Homesteads’ fresco to a “secularized, worker-based interpretation of the Haggadah.” Whether time has faded this significant work, or its color registration, these works especially are not well reproduced.
Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals is an artistic but not especially personal biography. Absent is Shahn’s contact with other New York or American artists of the time, despite his travels. For the general art public, the Bronx Central Post Office, the Queens Post Office, The Museum of the City of New York, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, hold the greatest promise for viewers seeking Ben Shahn’s very Jewish oeuvre. Linden’s book provides readers a fine analysis and overview.