Big Picture

The People's Painter coverBig Picture

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

written by Cynthia Levinson; illustrated by Evan Turk

Our Bulletin cover for April is uncharacteristically snarly. The art student with the paintbrush is not happy to be creating a pretty, pastoral scene; his chin-stroking teacher is not pleased with his recalcitrance. This is young Ben Shahn bristling under the critical gaze of a landscape painting instructor who insisted “paintings weren’t supposed to tell stories. That pictures should be beautiful—not real life.” However, Ben Shahn wasn’t into pretty, and he’d build a career as a preeminent Social Realist, making art whose beauty derived as much from truth and purpose as from aesthetics.

Two impulses manifested in Ben Shahn’s early childhood in a Lithuanian shtetl: to make art (even, when paper was scarce, drawing in the margins of his book of Hebrew Bible stories), and to confront injustice (even, at age four, railing against the czarist soldiers who came to arrest and deport his father). When Ben was eight and the family reunited in America, he would find plenty of fresh injustices to confront—particularly anti-Semitic bullies who, he discovered, could temporarily be held at bay by his sidewalk chalk portraiture. Forced to quit school to help support the family, he found a path to art, apprenticing with a lithographer and honing his design skills. It took a while to claim a distinctly narrative style, but his adopted nation quickly appreciated his passionate visual storytelling as a photographer documenting the suffering of those hard hit by the Depression, and as a painter paying tribute to immigrants in the Jersey Homesteads housing murals. His media varied, but his focus never did, and throughout his career he pursued an artistic agenda that critiqued societal ills from war to labor exploitation to the violation of civil rights.

Levinson’s relatively dense picture book text moves in a smooth, accessible flow, with tidily trimmed explanations of art forms and political vagaries. The range of Shahn’s social concerns depicted here supports the contention in her closing note: “You can almost track American history from the early 1900s to the 1960s through his work.” Turk, a professed devotee of Shahn’s work, is quite possibly the ideal illustrator for this title. The sure-handed heft of his painterly style and his confident visual narration mirror his assessment (offered in an appended note) of Shahn’s own approach: “He didn’t try to create exact likenesses of people, but tried to capture the way they felt and exaggerated to help tell the story more clearly.” So, too, Turk’s mixed-media illustrations embed deft shorthand quotes of Shahn’s paintings, many of which will be—or will become—familiar to readers, while pops of emboldened colors enhance Shahn’s original palette.

Ultimately, this will be a marvelous spur to kids beginning to consider the way art can be political. End matter adds information on social realist art and on Shahn’s personal life; an excellent timeline sets biographical “Snapshots” alongside “Bigger Picture” events. Quotation citations, bibliographies, and a brief Yiddish glossary and pronunciation guide are also included. (See p. 343 for publication information.)

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Image from  The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art ©  2021 reproduced by permission of Abrams.