SOCIAL REALISM DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 1930’S. AN APPRECIATION OF THE ART OF BEN SHAHN ( 1898-1969) AN OVERTLY POLITICAL ARTIST WHO TOGETHER WITH REGINALD MARSH ( 1898- 1954) AND ISABEL BISHOP ( 1902-1988) DEPICTED SCENES OF WORKING CASS LIFE HIGHLIGHTING POVERTY , EXPLOITATION AND OPPRESSION : PART 2

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Continuing my exploration of Shahn , Bishop and Marsh I am going to consider the comments of Ann Lee Morgan in her Book The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and artists.

” Bishop was principally interested in urban Life. She developed a fluid and delicate technique to convey a lyrical potential to her subjects”. [1].

The next set of comments I take issue with  as I did with Baigell. Again similar to Baigell Morgan displays her bourgeois prejudice of social and urban realists by stating

” Although dedicated primarily to a non-political form of American scene Painting”. [2].

This had no connection with American Scene Painting of woods and Hart Benton rural images of idyllic fantasy .Morgan’s problem is that like all Bourgeois art Historians she cannot distinguish Realism from fantasy.

Morgan continues her commentary of Bishop.

” Bishop devised a refined and luminous style well suited to her perception of delicacy and beauty in the Urban World”.[3].

” With time her delineation of form became looser giving her work a hazy ambience that suggests the instability of Modern Life”. [4].

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Morgan now turns her attention to Reginald Marsh a friend and colleague of Isabel Bishop who liked her used Egg Tempera in some of his works.

” His lively often dramatic portrayals of Modern city life number among the most vivid such subjects”. [5].

”  Marsh communicated  the physical energy of crowds , the Brash behaviour of masses of people  enjoying themselves , the seedy underside of night life and the unceasing movements of life in a modern Metropolis”.[6].

Morgan in the following commentary confirms that Marsh painted in watercolours and Tempera.

” Marsh painted mostly in the demanding media of watercolour and Tempera. from Michelangelo to Rubens he learned much about displaying the human form in space”.[7].

”  His compositions typically feature a fluid array of interlocking forms across the Pictorial surface with no visual centre these accommodate a wealth on incident”. [8].

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Ann Lee Morgan in her review of Reginald Marsh’s work finishes with this statement.

” Because the undulating forms prevent the eye from resting they emphasize his subjects dynamic character”. [9].

Morgan now moves on to discuss the most political of Modern social Realists Ben Shahn.

” A close observer of modern life in Painting and graphic works Shahn forged an ornamental yet directly expressive style combining description formal abstraction , and linear eloquence”.[10].

” Originating in Left wing politics and social views many of Shahn’s most significant early works evoke empathy for victims of injustice”.[11].

Shahn travelled to Spain and Paris developed a style of socially relevant subjects as Morgan states in her commentary.

” Following his return he sought to engage socially relevant content and soon formulated his distinctive style of expressive line flattened shapes and interlay of recognisable detail with abstract form”. [12].

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Morgan continues her commentary on Shahn considering his most dramatic picture that of Sacco and Vanzetti two political active anarchists who suffered at the hands of American Justice and were murdered by the State. Shahn in his depictions of Sacco and Vanzetti shows the true nature of the American Justice system.

” Many including Shahn thought that the pair had been unjustly treated  because they were foreigners and political radicals. the adversarial content of the Passion scenes placed Shahn in the company of other 1930’s artists active as social Realists”. [13].

Morgan shows how Shahn was politically active in New York even associating himself with Diego Riveria the great Mexican Muralist and Communist.

” Like many of them Shahn participated eagerly in New York art politics. He joined the artists Union worked for the art Front enrolled in the American Artists Congress assisted Mexican Muralist Diego Riveria”.[14].

Diego Riveria a member of the Mexican Communist Party like his Wife Frida Kahlo were both members of the Mexican Party. Both of them befriended Leon Trotsky who was exiled to Mexico as Stalinist  Agents had forced him to Leave Norway and the Social democratic Government of Tryve Lie forced Trotsky and his Wife Natalie Sedova to seek the help of President Cardenas who gave them permission to reside in Mexico. Riveria became for a short time a follower of Trotsky and together with Andre Breton and Trotsky signed The Manifesto ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary art’.

” Shahn  developed a personal photographic style in many ways analogous to his manner of painting”. [15].

” Shahn’s experience as a photographer affected the composition of many paintings that made use of photographic devices such as abrupt cropping and oddly foreshortened angles of vision”. [16].

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As you can see from the Posters I have reproduced painted and designed By Shahn he worked for the CIO one of the most radical of the Trade Union Organisations at the time . Morgan confirms these details.

” Between 1944-1946 Shahn worked for CIO political action committee in paintings of the early 1940’s”. [17].

” Shahn meant for painting to comment on the bittersweet human capacity for hope in the midst of devastating circumstances”. [18].

” In paintings of the early 1940’s Shahn began to turn towards the recurrent philosophical themes of his later Art”. [19].

This concludes my investigation of the Social Realists active during the depression years of the 1930’s Ben Shahn , Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh.

In my next posting I will be considering Isabel Bishop’s Social realist Paintings proving once and for all that she acted politically producing socially relevant work.

FOOTNOTES.

  1. THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS ANN LEE MORGAN PG. 44
  2. DITTO.PG.45
  3. DITTO.PG.45
  4. DITTO.PG.45
  5. DITTO.PG.299
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  9. DITTO.PG.299
  10. DITTO.PG.439
  11. DITTO.PG.440
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  16. DITTO.PG.440
  17. DITTO. PG.440
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  19. DITTO.PG.440

 

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