Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Handball, 1939, gouache on paperboard, 57.8 x 79.4cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Studying for an MA in American Literature, I chose to write my dissertation – now widely discredited – on the work of Saul Bellow. To save money, and following the lead of many students before me, I decided to buy the novels I needed secondhand. This had two plus points. Not only did they have that warm and woody scent that is distinctive to old books, but my editions – which tended to be 1970s Penguin paperbacks – featured illustrations by Ben Shahn on the front cover. Simple pleasures and all that.
For those that have read any of Bellow’s novels, you will probably agree that his characters are often embroiled in a tug-of-war between contemplation and frenzy. As Malcolm Bradbury put it, in Bellow’s fiction ‘human beings are dwarfed by the cities they live in, by the scale of their urban masses and their lower depths, by the power of science and the new cosmos.’ If I may simplify to the point of offensiveness, society has become atomised – emotionally, physically, intellectually. Not only do we have little faith in ourselves, we also have little faith in others.
Despite both Bellow and Shahn having very different artistic approaches, Shahn’s illustrations toe that line between contemplation and frenzy. However, where Bellow’s concerns are more intellectual, Shahn’s paintings inhabit a world where their political heart is worn on their sleeve. Shahn’s work is one of social realism, left-wing politics, organised labour, modern urban life, immigration and fighting injustice (see his Sacco and Vanzetti works).
To employ his social-realist vision, Shahn paints pictorial realities rather than abstract forms. A style that may seem outdated, Shahn defended himself by saying that it allowed him ‘to discover new truths about Man and to reaffirm that his life is significant.’ If I may intepret this message for a moment, it seems, like Bellow, Shahn is saying that our life is significant because we are significant to others. I find this sentiment hard to disagree with.
Everytime I see Shahn’s Handball I find there is something sad and weary about it. Even in recreation the workers look like they are labouring. The ball itself is non-existent, and the wall acts as a divide between them and the rest of society. Collective isolation coupled with our need for simple pleasures – if dictionaries had pictures you’d find this under bittersweet. ■ TA