Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit, MI



Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn


The Detroit Institute of Arts presents "Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn," on view July 25-October 31, 1999. The exhibition features 43 paintings created between 1936 and 1965. Although best known for his socially concerned realist art, Shahn turned to a more introspective style in the early 1940s. Through his art, he shared his own experiences as well as the historical events of his time, transforming both into commentary on social justice, humanitarian causes, and spiritual redemption. The exhibition has been organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, with sponsorship from professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP.

The work of Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was celebrated during his lifetime when it was widely promoted and collected in this country and abroad. Born in Lithuania to a traditional Orthodox Jewish family, Shahn immigrated to New York in 1906. He and his family were reunited there with his father, a socialist who had been exiled to Siberia for anti-czarist political activities. In his art and personal life Shahn gradually moved away from religious traditions of Judaism and established a secular identity aligned with the causes of labor and social reform during the 1930s.

Apprenticed to a lithographer from 1913-1916, Shahn developed an early style based on simplified, realistic images. In the 1920s he shared a studio with photographer Walker Evans, and had his first solo exhibition of paintings in New York City in 1930. His paintings responded to the social, economic and political upheavals of the Great Depression. His realistic figural style used to narrate themes of class struggle and social reform aligned him with a group of painters known as the Social Realists.

In the mid-1930s, Shahn shifted away from Social Realism, infusing his work with personal vision gained through direct experience. While many of his contemporaries turned toward abstraction, Shahn expanded his range of subjects to include biblical and psychological themes. Many such works addressed the traumas of World War II, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and the hope for world peace. Harvard University honored Ben Shahn noting that: "Pathos, protest, wit and wisdom shape the content of this lively artist's telling work."

"Common Man, Mythic Vision" features Shahn's last important series, the "Lucky Dragon," based on drawings commissioned by Harper's magazine in 1957. These poignant yet lyrical illustrations tell the tragic fate of Japanese fishermen whose boat, the Lucky Dragon, wandered into an American nuclear test area in 1954. All the crew suffered radiation poisoning and one died.

Two works from the DIA's collection are included in the exhibition: Composition for Clarinets and Tin Horn; and Bookshop: Hebrew Books, Holy Day Books. An exhibition catalogue is available in the DIA museum shops.

"Ben Shahn and Detroit," a selection of Shahn works from private collections in Detroit, will be on view in the Modern and Contemporary galleries through the run of the exhibition. An exhibition by students from Pontiac public high schools will be on view Oct. 13-31. Students will work with artist Peter Gourfain to create their own suite of prints inspired by Shahn's work.

Susan Chevlowe, associate curator at The Jewish Museum, New York City, is the organizing curator of this exhibition. Stephen Polcari, former New York director of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, is the consulting curator.

Images from top to bottom: Ben Shahn, Everyman, 1954, tempera on composition board, 72 x 24 inches, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Photograph copyright (c) the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Portrait of Dag Hammarskjold , 1962, tempera on plywood, National Museum, Stockholm, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Composition for Clarinets and Tin Horn, 1951, tempera on panel, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Photograph copyright (c) the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.; Ben Shahn, Bookshop, Hebrew Books, Holy Day Books, 1953, tempera on wood panel, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Photograph copyright (c) the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copyright (c) Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y


See also our article "Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn" at the Jewish Museum

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TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Ben Shahn: Passion for Justice. This program presents the biography of an artist who fused political awareness with modernism. Rare television and radio interviews recorded before Shahn's death in 1969 complement a retrospective of his paintings, sketches, and photographs. Also featured are interviews with Shahn's biographer, Howard Greenfeld; his widow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn; his daughter, Judith Shahn and others. Dist.: Films Media Group. 2002. 57 min. DVD 6076. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

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rev. 9/19/06

Read more about the Detroit Institute of Arts in the Resource Library.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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