Ben Shahn's New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene. By Diana L. Linden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015. xi + 170 pp.
One does not typically think of U.S. government funding as being a major or direct source of support for significant works of American Jewish art and culture, especially before the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. Among its other virtues, Diana Linden's Ben Shahn's New Deal Murals is a reminder of how a government agency's support could result in enduring works of art that deal squarely with Jewish and American issues, respecting both categories while synthesizing them.
Linden's study focuses on the murals that Shahn designed between 1936 and 1939 for The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, which commissioned major works of art under the New Deal. The first such mural, installed at the Jersey Homesteads where Shahn lived for much of his life, measures 12 by 15 feet and tells the story of Jews' immigration to America and industriousness as laborers and labor activists, including representations of Nazi anti-Semitism, Sacco and Vanzetti, Albert Einstein, and David Dubinsky, among others. The second, Resources of America, Shahn created with his companion Bernard Bryson for the Bronx Central Post Office, beginning in 1938. While Linden acknowledges "there is nothing about the subject matter, design, or content" of the thirteen panels, representing American workers, "that is explicitly Jewish," she reads Shahn's Jewishness as relevant in the reception of the mural (66). A quotation from Whitman was deemed "propaganda for irreligion" by a Brooklyn reverend, and Shahn responded by linking that censorship to Nazism before capitulating to pressure and changing the quotation (88). Finally, Shahn designed but never realized an aesthetically and politically ambitious plan for a mural for the St. Louis Post Office. Though not selected in that competition, eventually that plan was condensed, by the invitation of a government official, into an 8'6" by 16' egg tempera on canvas work, titled First Amendment, for the Woodhaven Branch Post Office in Queens. Linden's book reproduces more than sixty images in full color, including these murals themselves, Shahn's studies, and other relevant works of art by Shahn and his contemporaries.
Linden offers precise, perceptive, and detailed readings of Shahn's artwork, unpacking the symbols and formal strategies that make the murals...