What lies behind Ben Shahn’s lines of the times

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

When an artist feels compelled to incorporate words and poetry into many of his artworks, we get a sense that he may have taken up the wrong profession. This feeling of being unsettled in his art is something that comes up again and again with the career of the left-wing 20th-century American artist Ben Shahn, whose work is now on show at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama.

Throughout his career Shahn tried his hand at various forms of artistic media, including lithography, gouache, ink drawings, watercolor, photography, printed posters, publicly funded murals, and book and magazine illustrations. His themes ranged from caricature and social and political commentary to abstraction and artworks that expressed his Jewish cultural and religious background.

Born in 1898 in the Russian Empire, Shahn and his family moved to the United States when he was 8 years old; but, in a sense, he never really settled in his new country. There is a touch of the mythical Wandering Jew about his oeuvre, not least in the scratchy linearity that became its most characteristic feature. It is these restless lines — sometimes fluid and easy, sometimes tense and brooding — that are the focus of the show, and help give it its rather saccharine title, “The Magic of Lines.”

Because of his keen interest in politics and social issues, the show also reads like a potted history of 20th-century America. An early, undated tempera work on paper — one of the few color works in the exhibition — shows Alfred P. Sloan, the president, chairman, and CEO of General Motors from the 1920s to 1956, a quintessential business tycoon who famously said “The business of business is business.” Shahn shows him confidently posed in a double-breasted coat and fedora, with a henchman lurking in the background, giving him a kind of Al Capone atmosphere. This is representative of the way that the left-wing Shahn saw big business.

Other important figures from the “American Century” also crop up, often with a revealing touch of caricature from Shahn, although often it is Shahn’s attitude rather than the personality of the subject that is being revealed. This is especially true of his crudely insulting “Portrait of Barry Goldwater” (1964), an important senator at the time who helped revive American conservatism and libertarianism when the country was heading toward big government, but who was overwhelmingly defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Shahn draws him as a grinning infant wearing a diaper, one of many low blows that Goldwater was subjected to by his political opponents.

Another famous figure from those years is captured in “Martin Luther King” (1965), a pencil sketch of the civil rights leader in speech mode. Despite an apparent intention to give King a hagiographic aura, Shahn’s caricaturist tendencies can’t resist adding a few ugly touches, like one nostril shaded and the other unshaded, a misshapen ear, and a forehead noticeably lower than King’s actual forehead. This reveals a surprising ambivalence on Shahn’s part to an icon of the Left.

More elevated, if less lively, works from this period are “Young President” (1964) and “Picked Flower” (1964), ink drawings incorporating verses from Wendell Berry’s poem commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (1964). Taking his cue from the poem’s words, Shahn’s approach to his subject is more oblique — imagery that steps back and becomes a muted accompaniment to the text.

Alongside the more pointed political works and posters, these decorative illustrations, designed to work with words, show another side of the artist, one that is redolent of social climbing, sophistication and association with the high arts. In place of the proletarian polemics we see somewhat pretentious and slightly twee illustrations for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Hamlet, Louis Untermeyer’s “Love Sonnets,” and even the Christmas Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” From the outsider with a strident left-wing agenda, we now get a sense of the culturally cozy and socially connected arriviste.

But set against this narrative of the successful immigrant becoming part of the establishment, there is the counter narrative of the same successful insider seeking to regain some of his original cultural and religious identity, buried beneath the left-wing universalism of his politics and his connections with mainstream culture.

This led him to create more overtly Jewish works, often accompanied with Hebrew text, such as his illustrations “Ecclesiastes” (1966), which take their inspiration from the Hebrew Bible. Viewed together, you come to realize that it was this conflict at the heart of his identity that gave his art its restless energy.

“Ben Shahn: The Magic of Lines” at The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, runs till Jan. 14; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon (except Dec. 24, Jan. 14), Dec. 25-Jan. 4. www.momas.jp.