Visu­al Arts

Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty in the Amer­i­can Scene

Diana L. Linden
  • Review
By – February 4, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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