Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Illustrator Ben Shahn Does Posters

by Stephen J. Gertz


"His codified signature neatly scribbled under any of his images conjures up a peerless world of visual and emotional realism" (Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, 1988).

Born in Lithuania in 1898, artist Ben Shahn immigrated to New York with his family in 1906. He apprenticed with a commercial lithographer in 1911 while still a high-school student, and earned his living in the trade until the early 1930s, when he began to receive recognition as a fine artist.

In 1934, after exhibitions of his series of paintings about the Dreyfus and Sacco-Vanzetti affairs, he was commissioned to produce a mural by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The following year, Rexford Tugwell, a prominent member of Roosevelt's "brain trust," invited Shahn to join the Resettlement Administration. He worked as an artist in the agency's Special Skills Division and was an unofficial, part-time member of Roy Stryker's photographic section.

His first significant contact with graphic design, however, came in 1942 when he was hired to work in the Office of War Information. Shahn later told biographer Selden Rodman that his chief duty was "to explain in posters to the people who need it what is being done for them and to the others what they are paying for."

This image above  was "used by the CIO in a voter registration drive. [And] it represents, perhaps, the best of Shahn's poster work. One cannot soon erase the memory of the hollow-eyed young face begging for peace. Nowhere is Shahn's genius for drawing more evident than in the thrust of the pleading hand...Using the image of this child in the context of an election campaign seems to say that in a democracy the first step toward healing the ravages of war is to exercise one's right to vote" (Kenneth W. Prescott, The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn, p. 132).

Based upon his painting Hunger, Shahn recalled, in 1964, that he told Roy Stryker that a certain photograph of soil erosion would not have a strong impact on viewers. "Look Roy," Shahn said, "you're not going to move anybody with this eroded soil - but the effect this eroded soil has on a kid who looks starved, this is going to move people."


This poster, another for the CIO, "of a farmer, whose seeming integrity and strength greatly impressed Shahn" (Prescott p. 132),  is based on a photograph Shahn took during the 1930s while traveling through Arkansas as a member of the Resettlement Administration and Stryker's photography unit.  It is a haunting image of a troubled working man, memories of the Great Depression fresh and alarming,  yet with an optimistic message to allay his fears : "Register - Vote."


In the years after World War II, Shahn took on a new threat, anti-Labor, Establishment radicals. "The one arm, dressed in coat sleeve and shirt cuff, with hand clasping a colorful map of the United States, represents the country's supposedly small, but powerful, reactionary forces. The poster suggests that however strong, their power could be broken by the greater strength of the progressive forces, as represented by the larger, sleeveless arm" (Prescott, p. 131).

OUR FRIEND. (1944.)

Shahn's political orientation was patent, his views powerful. "This poster was used in the hotly contested 1944 campaign in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth term. Shahn presented Roosevelt as a warmly sympathetic man whose visage looms father-like above the crowd" (Prescott p. 128). The image, in retrospect, is a bit disconcerting, the obvious influence of Social Realism suggesting the cult of personality exploited by Stalin in Soviet propaganda. You can, in fact, substitute Stalin's image for Roosevelt's and wind up with a typical 1930s Soviet poster celebrating Papa Joe.

Be that as it may, his work here (and, ultimately, most of his work) was infused with a strong concern regarding the forces that undermine the common man, each a visual editorial protesting social injustice. Shahn was always a champion of the less fortunate.

Shahn's uncle was a bookbinder; he allayed Shahn's childhood hunger for books by bringing him volumes from his shop. After World War II he was chosen by Look magazine as one of the "World's Ten Best Artists." He abandoned painting for good and adopted graphic work for better. The book dust jackets he created (amongst other celebrated graphic designs) during the 1950s and 1960s remain classics.

Images courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries, with our thanks.

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