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The Art of Ben Shahn

At the Fogg Museum

By Lowell J. Rubin

As eloquent as Ben Shahn has been in the fall Norton lectures, his pictures speak with a bolder and more significant voice. The Fogg Museum has done well to complement the artist's stay here with an excellent exhibition of his work.

The more than three galleries given over to Shahn's art contain a wide variety of works. There are a number of book illustrations, drawings, Christmas cards--a selection of large graphic works including examples of his "commerical" art, as well as the more familiar paintings done in tempera, water color and gauche. Some of the artists best known works will be missed, such as Handball and Red Stairway, but these deficiencies are compensated for by the inclusion of many unusual and out of the way pieces.

The emotional range of this exhibition is as great as that of the media. There is a passion for justice, as represented by the Sacco-Vanzetti series, and passion for life. Children eating ice cream cones, lovers in a dream, musicians absorbed in the playing of their music so that one can almost hear the notes. The artist is sentimental, pained, jubbilent, comic. An unusually fine draughtsman, only upon occasion does Shahn fall into confusion of details or lack of definition as I think happens in Labyrinth which could more neatly be titled "whirlwind."

In almost all of Shahn's paintings, man is the hero, not line or form. Even when his subjects are alienated or alone against architectural backrounds as in the work of Hopper, or in open spaces there is concentration on the human significance. Although Shahn's work is representational he can hardly be called a Realist. His pictures mean very much more than the objects or people they represent. Symbolic realism might better catch his selection and refinement of images, and aesthetic elaboration.

Shahn's integration of form and content is an example to contemporary artists. This exhibit proves how "aesthetic" and formally complex it is possible to be and yet still able to communicate with, and relate to, society.

If the revolution in painting that we know generally as modern art means anything, it is the liberation of color and form not merely for their own sake, but for more complete human expression. This is the accomplishment of Shahn.

Whether or not the viewer understands all that there is to see when he first comes upon a Shahn canvas, at least he is not put off by it. He knows for example that there is a man lying on the beach in "pacific Landscape." He may wonder why the man is such a small part of the picture, he may not at first appreciate the significance of the aesthetic unbalance. But there are many levels upon which Shahn is working to portray this figure of man washed upon the shore denuded of humanity and life as if he were a stone. The picture next to it, Death on the Beach, an enlarged and different view of the body helps to get at the deeper meaning of this picture which has such personal significance for the artist. There are other opportunities in this exhibition to follow the development of an idea by the artist. Patterson, for example which begins like one of the bleak building fronts in Shahn's earlier work slowly evolves into a picture of color and perspective to which an ironic frieze motif along the top of the building has been added.

While still emphasizing content, there are indications that Shahn has become more interested if not merely more adept, in form and color in his recent work. He has become more abstract. James Thrall Soby feels that the artist's reaction of the War as expressed in such pictures as Liberation and Italian Landscape, have led the artist towards a rediscovery of European art. It is apparent that a number of new influences have been felt by the artist since the days of the stumpy and more photographic realism of Sunday Painter. The influence of European masters like Giotto, he acknowledged as early as the Sacco-Vanzetti series. More recently folk and primitive art, as represented in the Rousseau-like motifs of Summertime or the expressive decoration of Incutus, are apparent, as well as the influence of early European religious art and the grace and poetry of Shahn's figures. In color too, there is a significant development towards a brighter, more sensitive palette. The transparent application of colors over opaque tones gives his work more luminosity.

There is to be learned in this exhibit not only much about art but also much about life. It is well worth a number of visits.

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