Power To The People: Ben Shahn and Social Realism

September 4, 2017

Labor Day is being celebrated in America today and it is about barbecues and a day off of  work for most of us. It is also a celebration of hard earned workers' rights. I thought Ben Shahn and Social Realism would be a fitting blog topic for such a holiday.



I know for many the name Ben Shahn immediately makes you think socialism  and workers' rights ...


There is more to his work than that and his style is easily recognized and influential today.


For my beverage today I am going to enjoy a French Style Farmhouse Ale by Brewery Vivant called Farm Hand.   





It is freaking delicious!!!!  If you can get your hands on some I recommend it. Well I am ready .... so away we go!










Ben Shahn (Lithuanian, 1898-1969) is an intriguing  figure of early 20th century art who did not shy away from speaking his mind about politics and social injustice. He was born in Lithuania to an Orthodox Jewish family and moved to New York at the age of 8. Ben's father was imprisoned by the Tsar (Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire at the time) because of his socialist political views.


The imprisonment of his father for his politics would leave a permanent mark on Ben's world view.1  His world view would of course have a major influence on the style and subjects of the art he produced. Shahn's paintings and posters exemplify the Social Realism style of a fairly simple color palette and bold lines to create strong figures. I believe this style allows the  political  message to be in the forefront.


Shahn is most known for portraying laborers and working class people. In the 1930's he documented the depression and workers' struggles in photographs. Shahn's photographs are striking and unapologetic and changed the art form forever.   Shahn's used his camera to support the cause for decent wages and working conditions by exposing the difficulties of the working class.  This theme is the backbone of the Social Realism movement.





"Cotton pickers receiving sixty cents a day" Pulaski County, Arkansas, October 1935




"Tenant Farmer"


"Trapper's house" Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 1935




"Scene in Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana" 1935 

Shahn used painting  for expressing his political opinions  as well. One of his most recognized works is 'The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti .' The painting is Shahn's commentary on the execution of two Italian immigrants involved with the anarchist movement in early 20th century America for murder. Many believed they did not commit the crime but the anti immigrant sentiment in the United States of the 1920's may have (probably) played a role in their conviction and execution. 



The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti 1931-32

Tempera and gouache on canvas

Whitney Museum of American Art




The work was so well received a mural by Shahn was commissioned by Syracuse University and completed in 1967.  





Shahn was no stranger to murals. He did several for government buildings as part of the 1930's  WPA program. Most of these works celebrated American industry and workers. 

"The Meaning of Social Security"  located at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, Washington, D.C , Completed between the years 1939-1940




Detail of Bronx Post Office Mural, Celebrating The American Textile Industry, 1939



Shahn's  political posters of the 1940's share most of the stylistic characteristics of his murals and photos. Text is added to the strong figures, producing clear political messages.  His posters called people to vote and get involved in politics. Using art to spur action is a  calling card of the Social Realism movement. 



"This is Nazi Brutality", poster, 1943, published by US Department of War Information






"For full employment after the war, register, vote"  poster, 1944  

published by  the US Department of War Information



"For All These Rights We've Just Begun to Fight, CIO Political Action Committee" 

 Color lithograph poster, 1946, Courtesy of the HUC Skirball Cultural Center Museum Collection, Los Angeles, Library of Congress (164) 


All of these works by Ben Shahn and other Social Realism artists, like Diego Rivera*, added a new level of social and political commentary in art. Artists had made their work political in the past but the work of the early 20th century was stylistically unique and murals and photographs were used in new ways. I hope you have enjoyed the work of Ben Shahn and now have an understanding of Labor Day and how art was connected the workers' rights movement. 














1) http://www.theartstory.org/artist-shahn-ben.htm#biography_header


* I grew up in the metro Detroit area and was spoiled by getting to see the Rivera Detroit Industry murals at the DIA on a regular basis. 

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