There was a time when nearly everyone recognized Ben Shahn's scathing pictures from his most famous series, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1932. Sacco and Vanzetti, two working-class anarchists convicted on trumped-up murder charges, lie dead in their coffins. Behind them stand the top-hatted men of the old, Anglo establishment, hypocritically mourning the poor immigrants whose lives they destroyed.
These days, it may be hard to understand how vital such storytelling artists were to the political life of their times. In Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life, Howard Greenfeld does justice to those heady days, placing both Shahn and his work in the context of the Great Depression, the rise of unions and social relief programs, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. With uncommon fairness, Greenfeld also chronicles the difficult, contradictory personal life of this brilliant artist, who, for example, began and ended his career working on Jewish themes but cruelly abandoned his first wife, Tillie, and their two children to marry a Christian woman.
Greenfeld adeptly traces Shahn's development as one of the 20th century's most important illustrators and narrative artists, comparable to Daumier and even to Goya. Carefully researched, this biography is simultaneously respectful and objective. Greenfeld, who has also written biographies of Puccini, Caruso, and art collector Albert C. Barnes, has a gift for seeing a densely complicated life as an understandable, admirable whole. --Peggy Moorman [via]