Ben Shahn (American, b. Lithuania, 1898-1969)
New York, 1947
- Tempera on paper mounted on canvas and panel
- 36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm)
- The Jewish Museum, New York
- Purchase: Oscar and Regina Gruss Charitable and Educational Foundation Fund, 1996-23
- Art © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Not on view
Encourage students to examine this painting carefully:
- What are some of the images you see in this painting? Describe the way in which Shahn has combined these images.
- Does anything surprise you about the composition? Why might an artist combine elements in the way that Shahn has?
[Shahn’s imagery, composition, and flattened forms suggest a collage of memories. Also note the distorted scale: figures and objects are out of proportion with regard to one another.]
- How does Shahn use line, color, and shape to connect the different parts of the painting? What shapes and patterns are repeated?
[The fish and the boy mirror each other; the large forms of the man and the scale similarly balance each other. The horizontal lines of the street, the fish, and the boy help tie the image together, as do the circles of the scale and the man’s hat. These elements give the image coherence despite the collage-like combination of disparate elements.]
- The tempera paints Shahn used to paint this picture allowed him to achieve a translucent effect in certain areas. How does this contribute to the effect of the painting?
[It adds to the dreamlike quality of the images.]
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION:
After giving students an opportunity to examine this painting, explain that it was inspired by the artist’s memories of his own childhood and by photographs he took of the Lower East Side. Lead students in a discussion of related topics and themes:
- What aspects of the neighborhood does Shahn include in this painting? What would you include in a picture of your neighborhood?
- In what ways can the composition be considered a visual metaphor for memory? [The pastiche or collage-like quality of the composition may be interpreted as a visual metaphor for the piecemeal, fragmentary, fleeting qualities of memories.]
Discuss this quotation by the artist Ben Shahn:
- For imagination is images, traces of experience, the residue of impacts made upon us by all sorts of forces both from outside and inside ourselves. It is such images retained, and the power to re-invoke them, the power to re-group them and out of them to create new images according to our uses and intentions.
What do you think this statement means? How does it relate to the painting?
RESEARCH TOPICS / CONTENT CONNECTIONS:
- American Jewish History
- Memoirs / Personal Narratives
- Neighborhood Studies