A Book Review

A typewritten review by Ismar David for Reform Judaism, October 1972.

Ben Shahn
Edited by John D. Morse
Praeger Publishers

This book will tell the reader a great deal about Ben Shahn whose work, perhaps more than that of any other painter, mirrors the period that began with FDR’s presidency and lasted for almost four decades. But most important it lets the artist speak for himself. Essays, articles, lectures and letters all written by Ben Shahn, as well as in interviews and discussion, form the core of this book.

Throughout this book Ben Shahn conveys his deep involvement in the social and political life of his era. From it, his paintings and drawings have derived their strength and power and their relevance. As an artist committed to the present, he had to come to grips with all the different currents and trends of the twentieth century; he had to understand his contemporaries and their work. In this search he was guided by a keen sense for the genuine. But in his own work, abstract composition problems or formalistic approaches to color or texture have remained secondary. His work has been dominated by the manifestation of his strong urge to communicate his social concerns, his compassion for man, to his audience, the very society of which he felt he was an integral part.

Ben Shahn found himself, he found his way, his very personal approach to art, after some soul searching relatively early in his career. His images, his color schemes were the reflection of his emotional life, into which gradually his Jewish awareness penetrated. So it is not just for some of the Jewish themes or characters from the Hebrew alphabet that appear from time to time in his work, but for the almost metaphysical quality reflecting his Jewish feelings and sentiment that he deserves to be considered one of the great Jewish artists.

Ben Shahn lectured a great deal. He was one of those straightforward men who preach what they practice. Reading this book should be stimulating to anyone interested in art. But it will be of special value to the young aspiring artist. It should help him to find his way by finding and understanding himself.

One should not forget that Ben Shahn was first and foremost a painter, print maker and graphic artist, and so while reading this book one naturally has the desire to see his work. Neither the selection of illustrations nor their reproduction does justice to his achievements. But this will always be a problem concerning any book of this kind that deals with an artist whose main accomplishments are in the visual rather than the literary field.

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