Ben Shahn’s Ever-Relevant Political Art

In 1951, the American artist Ben Shahn proclaimed in a speech at the University of Buffalo: “It is the mission of art to remind man from time to time that he is human, and the time is ripe, just now, today, for such a reminder.” With serious wars and tensions escalating around the world, Shahn’s words are particularly pertinent. But perhaps more than his words, it is his artwork that resonates with a special sharpness now.

Ben Shahn: On Nonconformity at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid is an expansive and impressive exploration of the artist’s long and varied career. Curated by James Madison University professor and scholar Laura Katzman, the exhibition is the first retrospective of Shahn’s work in Spain, and the first to be staged in Europe since 1963. Taken together, more than 200 of Shahn’s paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs as well as fascinating documentary and source materials help the viewer understand Shahn’s creative process and personal belief systems to a depth rarely seen.

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But beyond these accomplishments, On Conformity also stands out for its timeliness. In the decades since Shahn’s death in 1969 — and since his last major presentation in the West in 1978 — his work has often been overshadowed by Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, and other movements. However, this exhibition shows his work to be strikingly relevant and even prescient. At a time of great global turmoil, On Conformity offers the stark reminder of our common humanity that Shahn called for more than 70 years ago.

Ben Shahn, “We Fight for a Free World!” (c. 1942), gouache and tempera on board, 13 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches (courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York)

Benjamin Zwi Shahn was born in 1898 in Russian-controlled Lithuania to a working-class Jewish family. As a child, his anti-Tsarist father was exiled to Siberia, an event that would influence Shahn’s later commitment to advocating for the underdog. Remarkably, his father was able to reunite with the family when they immigrated to New York City in 1906. There, Shahn grew up in the immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, pulled between his Yiddish-speaking Eastern European roots and more mainstream American currents.

The young artist was taken out of school in his teens to help support his family, but an apprenticeship at a Manhattan lithography workshop proved a fertile training ground for his creative aspirations. After studying at art schools including the Art Students League of New York, Shahn traveled to Europe and Northern Africa in the mid-to-late 1920s. There, he immersed himself in both the artistic avant-garde of Paris and in the unique Arab-speaking Jewish culture of the Tunisian island of Djerba.

Shahn’s return to the United States coincided with the 1929 stock market crash. The ensuing hardship of the Great Depression shifted and sharpened his focus — it is at this moment that On Conformity picks up Shahn’s story. From here onwards, the artist dedicated himself personally and professionally to using his artwork as a form of activism against injustice inside and outside the US. World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, India’s campaign for independence from Britain, and other major (if largely male-centric) events and players of the 20th century appear in Shahn’s oeuvre, as does the average man. Shahn’s themes — and his commitment to figurative work over abstraction — emerge from his progressive ideals, and his great desire to truly connect with his audience. The rest of the exhibition and Shahn’s career follow this single, steadfast line. 

From the very first room of the exhibition, Katzman pairs Shahn’s artworks with their photographic source materials, establishing the innovative ways that the artist literally and figuratively drew from the newspapers, books, magazines, and other media of his day. Importantly, these items are displayed separately so that viewers experience Shahn’s work on the walls first, and then discover its inspiration in nearby tabletop vitrines. In this way, the artist’s output stands on its own, while Shahn’s complex way of processing and remixing his photographic material gradually becomes apparent.

Shahn wasn’t just influenced by mass media; he also created it himself. Resistant to distinctions between fine and commercial art, he published his writing and illustrations in magazines and books throughout his career. He also created thousands of photographs in the 1930s using his 35mm Leica camera. On Conformity sheds light on his extensive though little-known photographic practice, which ranges from street snapshots around New York City to thousands of pictures taken during his work for the Farm Security Administration in rural areas of the US. 

Shahn’s curious, spontaneous photos of storefronts, laborers, farm workers, and other subjects trace the artist’s growing social consciousness. These pictures would also crucially shape his artwork for years to come. A handful of visual motifs resurface throughout the exhibition as Shahn recycles and re-presents them in new contexts. A compelling catalog essay by Christof Decker traces how one such image, Shahn’s photo “Sam Nichols, tenant farmer, Boone County, Arkansas” from 1935, is repurposed in three subsequent projects: a never-realized 1942 poster design for the US Office of War Information, a piercing painting from 1943, and a poster for the Congress of Industrial Organization-Political Action Committee in 1946. Along the way, the man from Shahn’s original photo transforms from a farmer in the American South to a prisoner in a European concentration camp and back again to a struggling farmer in the US.

Ben Shahn, Second Allegory (1953), tempera on canvas mounted on masonite, 53 1/2 x 31 1/3 inches

This, and other appropriations — including imagery from the Spanish Civil War and later global conflicts — demonstrate the artist’s complicated and quite modern relationship to image-making. For Shahn, anything could potentially be adapted into artworks, regardless of whether the inspiration matched the target time or setting, or even whether he himself had generated the source material. Beyond these fascinating technical aspects, Katzman’s inclusion of so much of Shahn’s photographic archive also offers insight into his larger humanistic project: the artist’s close study of specific events and injustices around the world was ultimately to give voice to a more universal human experience. 

Once again, Shahn’s paintings — especially the ones about the destruction of war — inspire a sense of terrible but important recognition. Perhaps this is why so much of his work feels so significant today: he found a way to represent the essence of momentous feelings and events. Shahn’s works don’t just respond to the atrocities of his own time; they have the uncanny ability to continue to speak to the ones of our present day. And in the process, they ask us urgently to do something.

Ben Shahn. “Warning! Inflation Means Depression” (1946), photo-offset lithograph on paper, 41 1/4 x 28 inches

Ben Shahn: On Nonconformity, curated by Laura Katzman, is on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain through February 26, 2024.


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