Ben Shahn once said, “I paint two things: what I love and what I abhor.” The artist had a deep affection for American workers, immigrants, and disenfranchised communities, and often expressed an abhorrence for injustice and oppression. Shahn was himself an immigrant: his family was forced to flee Lithuania after his father was exiled to Siberia for alleged revolutionary activities in 1902, and the family resettled in Brooklyn, New York. Even when Shahn was a young artist working in the 1930s, his art already exemplified a Social Realist style, depicting scenes of American life that commented on political corruption and the societal woes of the day.
Shahn first achieved success—and notoriety—for his portrayal of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, two Italian American anarchists who in 1927 were charged with murder and sentenced to death. Their conviction was based on circumstantial evidence and inflected by ethnic prejudice; their execution provoked international outrage. Shahn’s painting of the men in shackles became the subject of much debate when it was shown in MoMA’s 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. In response to calls to remove the painting for its “Communistic” sympathies, Shahn wrote, “I painted it with all the sincerity and skill I possessed and, in my judgment, there is no reason in the world why a mural on this subject should not be exhibited.” Shahn’s argument prevailed, and the painting remained on view.
During the Depression years of the 1930s, Shahn found employment with government relief agencies created by the Roosevelt administration to provide funding to jobless artists. He made paintings for the New York City Public Works Art Project and the Works Progress Administration before turning to photography in 1935 under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration (FSA, formerly the Resettlement Administration). He was recommended to the FSA by Walker Evans, a respected photographer with whom he had shared a studio. Encouraged by Evans’s example, Shahn had started to take spontaneous photographs of passersby in New York. While working for the FSA, his photographs shifted from urban street scenes to documents of rural poverty in the southern United States.
These commissioned photographs functioned as a form of government propaganda, intended to boost public support for programs that aided rehabilitation clients—agricultural workers rendered penniless by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The violent suppression of tenancy unions in Arkansas brought FSA photographers to the region in 1935 to fulfill the demand for pictures. Shahn was moved by the plight of sharecroppers, who were forced to rent the land they worked on while being paid only five cents an hour. In photographs like Sharecropper’s Children, Arkansas, Shahn recorded their destitution while also acknowledging each subject’s individuality. Reflecting on his work for the agency, Shahn recalled, “Our function was…to convince our congressmen and senators that this is a necessary thing, this Resettlement Administration; and without convincing the public you can’t convince a congressman either.”
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Shahn redirected his artistic activism toward new aims, joining the Graphic Arts Division of the Office of War Information. There he created political posters that warned the American public about Nazi atrocities and encouraged support for the Allied forces. His lithograph This Is Nazi Brutality portrays a prisoner whose enshrouded head suggests he has been kidnapped and will soon be executed. Below, Shahn meticulously reproduced the shocking telegram that circulated internationally on June 11, 1942, after Adolph Hitler ordered the annihilation of the Czech town of Lidice in retaliation for the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official. Many saw the attack as a harbinger of the profound devastation to come, and Shahn’s poster urged Americans to acknowledge the genocide that was occurring across Europe.
Although Shahn experimented in an array of mediums throughout his career, often returning to the same imagery, the works he created are united by their repudiation of prejudice and injustice. He believed wholeheartedly that art could create an educated and sensitive public, and commended its power “to lift the level of perceptivity, to increase and enrich the average individual's store of values.”
Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2023