Ben Shahn


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(b Kovno [now Kaunas], Lithuania, 12 Sept. 1898; d New York, 14 Mar. 1969).

American painter, illustrator, photographer, designer, teacher, and writer, born in Lithuania, then part of Russia. His family emigrated to the USA in 1906 and settled in New York. Shahn's background (his father had been sent to Siberia for revolutionary activities) and early life (he grew up in a Brooklyn slum) gave him a hatred of cruelty and social injustice, which he expressed powerfully in his work. He first made a name with a series of pictures (1931–2) on the Sacco and Vanzetti case (these two Italian immigrants had been executed for murder in 1927 on very dubious evidence, and many liberals believed that they had really been condemned for their anarchist political views). The paintings are in a deliberately awkward, caricature-like style that vividly expresses his anger and compassion. In 1933 he was assistant to Diego Rivera on the latter's murals for the Rockefeller Center, New York, and subsequently he painted a number of murals himself, notably for the Bronx Post Office, New York (1938–9), and the Social Security Building, Washington (1940–1). From 1935 to 1938 he worked as an artist and photographer for the Farm Security Administration, a government agency that documented rural poverty. During the Second World War his work included designing posters for the Office of War Information. After the war he returned to easel painting and was also active as a book and magazine illustrator and as a designer of mosaics and stained glass. His later work tended to be more fanciful and reflective and less concerned with social issues. From the 1950s he gave more time to teaching and lecturing and in 1956–7 he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. His lectures there were published as The Shape of Content (1957), in which he summarized his humanistic, anti-abstract artistic philosophy.

Subjects: Art.

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