Ben Shahn’s celebrated New Deal murals can be found throughout the United States. Born in Lithuania, trained under Diego Rivera, Shahn’s work for the federal government depicted a diverse nation of workers, dedicated to the twin aims of progress and justice. (Appropriately, his mural for the recently-sold Bronx General Post Office, painted with his wife Bernarda, was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing.”) We are extremely happy to report that Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Wayne State University Press, 2015), by art historian (and friend-of-the-Living New Deal) Diana L. Linden, has been named 2016 Finalist in the Visual Arts Category by the National Jewish Book Awards. In Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals, Linden explores the ways in which the artist’s Eastern European Jewish background informed the conceptualization and production of his celebrated murals.
From the publisher: “In four chapters, Linden presents case studies of select Shahn murals that were created from 1933 to 1943 and are located in public buildings in New York, New Jersey, and Missouri. She studies Shahn’s famous untitled fresco for the Jersey Homesteads—a utopian socialist cooperative community populated with former Jewish garment workers and funded under the New Deal—Shahn’s mural for the Bronx Central Post Office, a fresco Shahn proposed to the post office in St. Louis, and a related one-panel easel painting titled The First Amendment located in a Queens, New York, post office. By investigating the role of Jewish identity in Shahn’s works, Linden considers the artist’s responses to important issues of the era, such as President Roosevelt’s opposition to open immigration to the United States, New York’s bustling garment industry and its labor unions, ideological concerns about freedom and liberty that had significant meaning to Jews, and the encroachment of censorship into American art. Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions.”
Here at the Living New Deal, we showcase the era’s commitment to pluralist democracy, past, present, and future. In what is the first monograph of any artist’s New Deal-era output, Diana Linden makes a case for the role of the arts and imagination in this all-important endeavor.