Ben Shahn was a social realist artist born in 1898. Shahn and his family fled persecution in Kaunas, an area of modern-day Lithuania, and settled in New York in 1906.
Shahn achieved fame in 1932 with his depiction of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti who had been charged with murder and executed. Many, including Shahn, believed they had only been convicted due to prejudice against them as anarchists and migrants. This would be the first of many political pieces of art for Shahn.
In the 1930s, Shahn was apprenticed to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, assisting him with painting the Man at the Crossroads fresco at the Rockefeller Center. Shahn’s connections to Rivera would become problematic when popularist terror of communism reached a fever pitch in America in the 1950s. Rivera was part of the Communist party and a close associate of Trotsky.
The government’s suspicion of Shahn was not only grounded in his links to communists, but because of the form of his artwork. The USA was gripped by a paranoid belief that threats to the status quo were somehow contagious and had ‘infiltrated’ art. One member of Congress, George Dondero, believed that ‘modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly’. He even prompted an FBI investigation against Shahn, who monitored his studio and threatened him with deportation in 1952.
Shahn’s experiences of repression on either side of the Iron Curtain showed him that there few ideals in the East or the West. Indeed, he publicly condemned both communism and McCarthyism in 1956. Perhaps Shahn’s experience as a refugee encouraged his subversive nature: while wartime propaganda encouraged absolute faith in the state, Shahn’s childhood had taught him that it was entirely possible for a government to be wrong. They could and should be resisted.