Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
Ben Shahn, a painter and photographer of Lithuanian origin with a heightened social awareness belonging to the left wing of the so-called American Scene realist movement, devoted most of his artistic output to expressing his political and social concerns.
French Workers, a painting characteristic of this movement, is an arresting image showing several workers raising their hands in protest. They are facing an official announcement of the decree issued by the collaborationist Government of Vichy on 4 September 1942, whereby France placed its working class at the disposal of the German war industry through the so-called “compulsory labour service.” Shahn, a Jewish artist, was ever ready to object to Hitler’s policies and, at the same time, denounce the similarities with certain behaviours in American life. It is telling that this painting should have been published as a poster by the Office of War Information (OWI), printed with the following statement: “We French workers warn you ... / defeat means slavery, starvation, death.”
The person in the centre of the foreground is accorded greater prominence and is the only figure whose facial features are shown. The rest of the motley group is an anonymous mass. The artist places the full emphasis of the scene on the workers’ raised arms in a sign of protest, in poses that recall certain works by Picasso, and on the exaggeratedly enlarged hands that denote manual work. Concern about manual work, a topical issue in America following the New Deal, spawned a proliferation of images devoted to the working class in the visual arts, perhaps with the underlying belief that art and artists could help improve their situation. Shahn himself wrote that “my credo is that, the artist, in the very business of keeping his integrity, begins to supply some of the moral stamina our country needs.”