A prolific visual artist before, during, and after the New Deal, Ben Shahn’s religion (Judaism), place of birth (Lithuania), and first language (Yiddish), set him apart as a member of “the ‘Hebrew Race,’ a racial assignment both inferior and vastly different from white or Caucasian artists among whom Shahn is positioned today.” This identity, all-important at the time but largely overlooked now, accounted for a sense of history, community, and engagement with the world that Shahn manifested in his innovative and unflinching murals.
Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, a finalist in the Visual Arts category of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards, examines four works that Shahn completed or envisioned while working for the WPA. Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s and created his own visually powerful style as a muralist for the New Deal Arts Project. After situating Shahn within early 20th Century New York, the book delves into the conception, creation, and reception of four murals: “The Jersey Homesteads Mural,” which Shahn painted for a cooperative community of former Jewish garment workers established under the New Deal; the Bronx Central Post Office murals; a mural he proposed for the main St. Louis Post Office; and an easel painting in a Queens post office. Setting them within their national and international contexts, including Jewish agrarian communities in the Soviet Union, the rise of Nazi Germany, and life in Manhattan where Shahn lived and worked, Linden illustrates how the artist layered identities and eras to make America comprehensible to an “in between” people.
For instance, the Jersey Homesteads Mural celebrated American workers while alluding to the promise and disillusionment that the nation held for immigrants fleeing persecution. Linden maintains that it echoes the mass exodus of Eastern European Jews to America and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, calling attention to America’s stringent immigration policies at a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution. In Shahn’s proposed St. Louis mural depicting Missouri’s history, prominent barbed wire suggests “an important tool by which white settlers kept ‘others’ out in order to claim the land for themselves,” as well as the Nazis’ use of “barbed wire as a tool to contain people,” Linden observes.
In Linden’s view, Shahn’s goal was to “spark positive social change.” Her book, bolstered by vibrant reproductions of Shahn’s murals, sketches, and photographs, shows that his view of art was to compel rather than simply commemorate. Readers interested in Jewish American history, art history, and Depression-era American culture will enjoy this insightful book.