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Artists Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn Photo

Ben Shahn

American Artist

Movements and Styles: Social Realism, Documentary Photography

Born: September 12, 1898 - Kovno, Lithuania

Died: March 14, 1969 - New York, New York

Ben Shahn Timeline

Quotes

"All art is based upon nonconformity."
Ben Shahn
"Art is still the citadel of the individual."
Ben Shahn
"Those who take it upon themselves to minister to the human spirit shall themselves be moved primarily by things of the spirit."
Ben Shahn
"I hate injustice; I guess that's about the only thing I really do hate."
Ben Shahn
"To me, propaganda is a holy word."
Ben Shahn
"Painting can become, and has become for me, a way of life, so that inevitably I can express almost anything I feel better in that medium than any other medium."
Ben Shahn
"I found I could say what I wanted to say much more effectively in a drawing or a painting."
Ben Shahn

"If I am to be a painter I must show the world how it looks through my eyes, not theirs."

Ben Shahn Signature

Synopsis

Ben Shahn's desire to create narrative art that focuses on social and political justice have come to exemplify Social Realism and the art of social consciousness. From his questioning religious teachings as a youth in Lithuania and up through the end of his life, Shahn remained true to his vision. He never failed to create artwork to draw attention to those for whom life was a struggle, and did so with dignity rather than pathos or sentimentality.

Key Ideas

Prior to World War II, Shahn was a lead practitioner of what has come to be called Social Realism. Such art works are narrative, figurative, and illustrative of the poor, oppressed, or those who live at the margins of society. The guiding spirit of Social Realism is a commitment to humanism.
Ben Shahn brought together different forms of visual culture to break down the barrier between mass media and fine art. In opposition to what Shahn called "the rules for pure art," the artist consistently inserted words, texts, and quotations into his artwork to emphasize the didactic nature of his art.
Because of Shahn's apprenticeship and friendship with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other prominent artists, he upheld the supremacy and universality of art over the false boundaries of nation states. Through his work with Rivera, Shahn serves as a conduit between the United States and the arts of Mexico which were all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s, but fell out of favor until its revival in the 1980s.
Despite his rise in fame and prestige, Shahn remained committed to his audience and subject matter. Shahn never spoke down to the American people, rather he stood amongst the crowd and fought the same fights as they did.

Biography

Ben Shahn Photo

Childhood and Education

Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, Shahn witnessed both anti-Semitism and political persecution during his childhood in Lithuania. The Tsar's forces arrested Shahn's socialist father and imprisoned him in Siberia. As a young boy, Shahn began to take a stand against social injustice, a moral stance that would define his life's work. While as a youth studying the Bible, he accused God of acting unjustly when he struck a man dead who had disobeyed his command in the story of the building of Solomon's Temple. Initially, Shahn refused to return to religious school until the teacher would acknowledge this injustice; later, he only returned because of the urging of his beloved grandfather. In 1906, when Shahn was 8 years old, his family immigrated to New York and reunited with his father who had long since escaped and settled in Brooklyn. The year 1906 was the peak year of Eastern-European Jewish migration to America so Shahn's is very much an immigrant's story. While a child back in Lithuania, Shahn first became interested in art; but, as resources were scarce, he had to draw on the pages of his books.

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Ben Shahn Biography Continues

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Ben Shahn
Interactive chart with Ben Shahn's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Diego RiveraDiego Rivera

Personal Contacts

Meyer SchapiroMeyer Schapiro
William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams
Walker EvansWalker Evans

Movements

African ArtAfrican Art
CubismCubism
ExpressionismExpressionism
Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism

Influences on Artist
Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn
Years Worked: 1921 - 1969
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Ad ReinhardtAd Reinhardt
Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Leon GolubLeon Golub

Personal Contacts

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams

Movements

Mexican MuralismMexican Muralism
Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
RealismRealism
Social RealismSocial Realism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Diana Linden

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Diana Linden
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