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Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn -Jersey Homesteads (Roosevelt NJ) Mural

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The artist must operate on the assumption that the public consists in the highest order of individual; that he is civilized, cultured, and highly sensitive both to emotional and intellectual contexts. And while the whole public most certainly does not consist in that sort of individual, still the tendency of art is to create such a public – to lift the level of perceptivity, to increase and enrich the average individual’s store of values… I believe that it is in a certain devotion to concepts of truth that we discover values.

–Ben Shahn

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Born in Lithuania in 1898, Ben Shahn emigrated to America with his family in 1906. Throughout his career, up until his death in 1969, Shahn’s early training as a lithographer and graphic designer played a large part in his work, giving it a symbolic visual impact that made him one of he leading lights of social realist artists. His work often dealt with the human condition, particularly that of the common man.

Ben Shahn- The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

While many of the themes in his work were labeled as leftist, his work championed civil rights and workers’ rights and stood against injustice and prejudice. He did a large series of works devoted to Sacco and Vanzetti. Designed to communicate a distinctly human point of view, his work always had a profound voice, one that called for the betterment of all people.

His was the work of the Everyman.

As he said: The natural reaction of the artist will be strongly towards bringing man back into focus as the center of importance.

I think that is a very important thing to keep in mind as is the quote at the top of the post, about how an artist must aspire to the highest human values of the public, even though they may not actually possess these qualities, with the hope that the artist’s work can lift them to a higher level. It’s a thought that should linger in the mind of any artist who hopes and desires to make a true difference in this world with their work.

I am not giving a lot of details here about the life and career of Shahn. But I hope the few that I have shared along with some of his images will inspire you to take a closer look at this interesting and important voice in modern art.

Ben Shahn- Father and Child 1946

Ben Shahn- The Burial Society

Ben Shahn- Nocturne

Ben Shahn- Four Piece Orchestra 1944

Ben Shahn- Self Portrait Among Churchgoers

Ben Shahn- Two Witnesses

Ben Shahn- Unemployment

 

 

 

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When I read the line above taken from the journal of the great Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), it really hit close to the bone for me. I thought about my early forays in my youth when I believed I wanted to be a writer.

I loved the words and their power, their ability to create emotion and reaction in the mind of the reader. But I cared little about creating narrative, about the details, the nuts and bolts, involved in storytelling. It was the essence of things that interested me, the atmospheres of silence and distance and empty space.

It was all too heady for an uneducated and inexperienced kid. I didn’t know what to do with writing that evolved into what seemed to be ethereal nothingness. More and more, it became a frustrating exercise.

And I think that is where painting came in for me, at a time when I truly needed it. I found that painting, especially landscape painting, was less about narrative and more about that essence, about capturing moments of atmosphere and perceived emotion and spirit.

The unwordable and the unformable, as Emily Carr put it.

I definitely see this evocation of essence in the work of Emily Carr and can only hope to find the same in my own.

 

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Painting for me is like a fabric, all of a piece and uniform, with one set of threads as the representational, esthetic element, and the cross-threads as the technical, architectural, or abstract element. These threads are interdependent and complementary, and if one set is lacking the fabric does not exist. A picture with no representational purpose is to my mind always an incomplete technical exercise, for the only purpose of any picture is to achieve representation.

–Juan Gris

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I like this idea of painting being a fabric with a weft and a warp of elements that bring the representation to its full realization. It’s this idea that allows for such differing versions of the same image. One set of threads bring the recognizable form while the other allows for the individual artistic interpretation. Some fabrics are richer and some are coarser. Some are stronger and some are weaker.

I may not be explaining it very well but I understand it.

This comes from the great Cubist painter Juan Gris, who was born in Spain in 1887 and died in France in 1927, leaving behind a consistently wonderful  body of work. He is thought of as one of the most important of the Cubists, perhaps only eclipsed by Picasso and Braque.

Since he died at such a relatively young age– 40 years old– it makes one wonder how his work would have evolved in the later years of maturity that he never obtained. As it is, there is a lot to see in his work.

His most famous piece, Still Life with Checked Tablecloth from 1915, is at the top of this page. It sold at auction in 2014 for $57.1 million and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. You can click here and go their Met Collects site to get a closer look at the painting. Being able to look closely at the surfaces is very illuminating to me. Take a look for yourself.

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Kay WalkingStick- New Mexico Desert 2011

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Avoid methodology. If what you’re doing is about technique, that’s not art.

–Kay WalkingStick

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Very much agree with this quote from contemporary landscape painter Kay WalkingStick. Soon to be 84 years old, Kay WalkingStick is a member of the Cherokee Nation who was raised in Syracuse and was an art professor at nearby Cornell University for a number of years. She incorporates Native American symbols and patterns in her work, which are often executed in diptych forms.

Even though there has been a physical proximity. I don’t know a lot about her work. I would love to see it up close to examine the surfaces, to see how the pieces speak in person.

Her advice about not tying yourself solely to process is a most valuable lesson for all artists. I think you need to live in the fringes of technique, always ready to stray into territory of material use that is new to you as an artist. You need to feel a bit lost so that you react intuitively, using what little you do know in new ways.

That is where the magic sometimes happens, where art takes place.

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My originality consists in putting the logic of the visible to the service of the invisible.

Odilon Redon

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This is a bit of a continuation of yesterday’s post where Magritte spoke of poetry and mystery in his work. The above quote from Odilon Redon (1840-1916) describes very much that same sentiment.

A work of art should have a sense of logic to it even if it might go against all that we know of the natural world. This created logic allows us to accept what we see before us, permits us to fully absorb the poetry and mystery–the invisible elements to which Redon alludes–without question.

This acceptance allows us to move beyond the visible, allows us to perceive our reality in a different manner, perhaps in an enhanced way.

As a viewer, I know the works of art that move me most of all fall into this category. They may not seem unusual at first look. Their subject might even seem mundane. They seem outwardly logical but there is something that moves them into that area of mystery and poetry, that gives them an sense of the indefinable.

As an artist, it is something you hope to achieve but don’t really know how to explain how you do it because you don’t really know for sure. It sometimes either happens or it doesn’t.

And that is its own mystery.

It’s a mystery that keeps the artist wanting to always move ahead with the hope that it will all someday be revealed.

Will it one day be revealed? Who knows? It’s a mystery.

 

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People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images.

Rene Magritte

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I absolutely love this painting, The Banquet, from Rene Magritte in 1958. It has the effect where I don’t question anything about it. I just accept it as it is presented. I am not looking for symbolism in it at all, not looking for a reason why the red ball of sun is hovering low in front of the trees. The colors, the contrast, the composition– they create a whole sensation doesn’t need a why or what or how.

As Magritte points out, it contains poetry and mystery.

And that is something to try to understand. I know I often feel the need to try to explain my work, to point out where I find an emotional base in a piece. Sometimes that is easy, almost jumping out at you. But sometimes it is not so obvious and it is simply the mystery of the created feel, a great intangible pulse, that makes a particular painting work.

You see it, feel it, accept its reality yet you don’t fully understand the why and how.

And maybe that is just as it should be. Not all we behold can or should be explained. Sometimes, maybe we simply need to experience poetry and mystery.

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A blog post that ran here a couple of years back with some advice from poet e e cummings is consistently one of my most popular, always getting a number of hits. For example, there was quite a pop in its numbers yesterday. I don’t know what brought it on but it made me want to revisit the post. Reading it again made me appreciate even more the words. Even though it was aimed at potential poets it rang equally true for me as a painter, especially when I substituted the word painter for poet, paint for words, and painting for poetry.

I thought I’d replay it today doing just that. Where there is a word like [thiswith brackets, I have substituted an equivalent word. And if you’re not a painter, feel free to use any word that describes what it is you do to express yourself.

I think you might find it inspiring.

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Whenever I am asked to speak with students I usually tell them to try to find their own voice, to try to find that thing that expresses who they really are. I normally add that this is not something that comes easily, that it takes real effort and sacrifice. It is a never-ending struggle.

The great poet e e cummings (you most likely know him for his unusual punctuation) offered up a beautiful piece of similar advice for aspiring poets that I think can be applied to most any discipline.

Or to anyone who simply desires to feel deeply in this world.

I particularly like the line: To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. That line alone speaks volumes.

Take a moment to read this short bit of advice and see what you think– or feel.

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A [Painter’s] Advice To Students

Borrowed from (e e cummings)

A [painter] is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through [paint].

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And [painting] is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in [paint], that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a [painter] can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using [paint] like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not [painters].

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve [painted one part of one real painting], you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become [painters] is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

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