COMMON JEW, PROPHETIC VISION: Spertus Institute’s new exhibit looks at the work of artist Ben Shahn, whose themes are especially relevant in today’s world

Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Part of an artist’s sensibility is to leave interpretation of his work in the eye of the beholder, to see beauty or otherwise.

So when a visitor to the lobby of the Spertus Insitutute of Jewish Learning and Leadership in downtown Chicago gazes upon a group of 24 Ben Shahn lithographs, he or she will walk away debating the meaning of what they have seen.

Images include a white bird (a dove of peace?), a group of people, a child under the covers, a woman in labor, two people hugging, a dying person and others, seemingly unrelated, unlinked.

Keep ‘em guessing…

…and, keep ‘em talking.

Shahn, one of the best, and all-around, Jewish artists of the mid-20th century, would have been pleased to pick up on any momentary or lingering puzzlement.

Some of the prime work of Shahn from Spertus’ own collection is on display and entitled “Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When?” running through Aug. 28 in the institute’s new Ground Level Arts Lab.

The lithographs up for initial interpretation are part of his 1968 collection, “For the Sake of a Single Verse,” illustrating a passage from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.” But go to the other side of the wall, and the visitor will be faced with the realism of Shahn’s “Civil Rights Portfolio.” It dates from 1965, when Shahn created prints to benefit the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Relations Council of Greater New Haven, Conn.

Dead center, and practically looking right through the art aficionado, are portraits of martyred civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both Jews, and the black James Chaney. Their disappearance amid a Mississippi voting rights campaign in June 1964 caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to order the FBI to turn that part of the backward state upside down. Tragically, the massive search and withering pressure on the local populace turned up three dead bodies. The personalities of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, though, come alive through Shahn’s work, proving that in the arts, past often is prologue.

The Lithuanian-born Shahn – who died at 71 in 1969 — was a committed activist and humanist. He is representative of a generation of secular leftist Jews whose activism on behalf of social and political justice was influenced by their experience as immigrants from Eastern Europe and their involvement with the labor movement’s struggle for social reform.

Early on, Shahn used his multiplicity of talents to help sell the New Deal, with a mural still adorning a WPA-constructed Connecticut school and photographs showing Depression era workers laboring for their daily bread. He explored themes of injustice, immigration, modern urban life, and organized labor––revealing a passionate search for social justice and an engagement with questions about spirituality and ethnic identity.

But like many 1930s activists, Shahn ran into flack in later decades with themes considered too far left. Working on posters for CBS-TV, he lost some career momentum in the 1950s due to the Red Scare. Undeterred, he kept on creating, including a 1960 screenprint poster entitled “Stop H-Bomb Tests”  made for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

Although Shahn enthusiastically pitched in with his civil-rights collection, he morphed later in life into what his biographers term “allegorical, mythological and biblical imagery to express personal and human concerns.” Some of that storyline may have turned up in 1966 on a Passover Haggadah — part of the show’s display near the civil-rights section — on which Shahn festooned calligraphy.

Ionit Behar

New Spertus curator Ionit Behar had the task of organizing the Shahn collection and winnowing down the artwork to its present form. The process of making the cut was a challenge for the Israeli-born-and-educated, but Uruguayan-raised Behar, holder of a master’s degree in Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute just blocks down Michigan Avenue from Spertus.

“We had other Ben Shahn works in the (Spertus) collection that I didn’t include just because I wanted to focus on this body of work, specifically his work on paper,” said Behar.

“Lithographs, more specifically, because it’s (a genre of) work he started as a child. He began learning lithographs at 14. It was a way for him to survive. It was a way to survive, a cheaper way to make art, easier to sell. It was a more common art than today. I don’t really see artists working in lithographs today.”

Behar added that photography was central to Shahn’s work, but opted not to include photos in the show.

“He worked with political posters a lot, dealing with anti-Semitism and racism,” she said.

In painting, Shahn emphasized “social realism.” However, some time-consuming mural projects were canceled due to his politics, “a little too much for the government,” Behar said.

Her choice of the two dozen lithographs in “For the Sake of a Single Verse” plays off a Rilke work Shahn discovered in Paris in 1926 when he was 28 years old. Shahn wrote, “I was entranced by the writer’s observations, not just upon Paris, but on life itself. Malte Brigge had only just arrived in Paris when the notebooks began. He too was twenty eight. This young man seemed almost to be me.”

The verse that ties together the lithograph is:

“For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars—and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this.

“One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.

Many Things Full

“For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

The space where the Shahn exhibit is located is the Ground Level Arts Lab, which replaced a gift shop. The reasoning behind the opening of the arts lab is the desire to display in public more of Spertus’ substantial Jewish art collection.

“The main rationale is we have a marvelous collection,” said Dr. Dean P. Bell, Spertus’  provost and vice president, “Spertus was known as a large museum that did regular ongoing temporary exhibitions. We tried to establish smaller exhibitions, but 60,000 pieces would take a little bit of work (to display). We decided to have a space right in the heart of the building when you first walk in for people to engage with the collections.”

Shahn’s work had not been displayed in four decades.

“I knew we had it,” Bell said. “We had a lot of other treasures in the collection that really allow us to grapple with issues related to topics in Jewish history and in general history as well. We also lend parts of these to other institutions (in the U.S., Israel and France).

“Ionit made this selection in part because of the climate society is dealing with and some of the issues we’re trying to address in other parts of our programming.  At Spertus Institute, we sort of live in the past, present and future simultaneously. So we try to bring Jewish thinking, classical texts and culture to bear on contemporary issues and concerns. We find they both get enriched as a result of that conversation and placement.”

Bell said Behar will be the point person in developing the Arts Lab’s presence starting with the Shahn program.

“Ionit’s experiences creatively bridge contemporary art and a wide range of themes from across the Jewish experience, making her a wonderful match for Spertus Institute’s efforts to integrate art across our academic and public program areas,” he said.

Behar steps into the role held since 2010 by Ilana Segal, who moved to Seattle with her family.

Her areas of expertise include 20th-century art in Latin and North America, exhibition history and theories of space and place. She serves as director of exhibitions for Fieldwork Collaborative Projects, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing cultural capital in Chicago by working collaboratively with the Chicago Park District, CTA and public schools.

Behar’s first art job after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in art history at Tel Aviv University was at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where she worked with the curators of Judaica and Ancient and Byzantine Art. She can talk a good game in art, too, with fluency in six languages: English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

Migrating to an art capital of the world via the Art Institute and her present job was a dream come true growing up in the close-knit Jewish community of Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. Not an art center to be sure, but what culture existed was stoked for Behar by outings with grandmother Lisa Block de Behar.

“I traveled with my grandmother and experienced different cultures in museums,” Behar said. “I always felt as an outsider, having been born in Israel. Both my parents were Uruguayans, but they studied in Israel.

“The museums are small and it’s not a rich country,” she said of Uruguay. “The museums struggle to have great shows. My grandmother, a very knowledgeable person (as a writer and professor) talked to me when I was very young and helped me develop aesthetic thinking. That’s when I began to feel the world in a different way.”

Behar needed a wider world view. Jewish life in Montevideo was almost like that of a small town.

“It’s small, but it is a very, very strong Jewish community. We all know each other. It’s pretty much Reform. It’s much more about the cultural identity.”

Behar will certainly find a more cosmopolitan Jewish life in Chicago. And she doubles her chance to meet art lovers with two jobs. Behar continues her Art Institute connection as a researcher in the modern and contemporary department.

Ben Shahn by Ida Kar, vintage bromide print, late 1950s

Susan Chevlowe, who organized a 1998 Ben Shahn exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, says that Shahn was a multi-media artist long before TV and the internet.

“His genius is combining these media and using them together, to speak to one another,” Chevlowe said.  “He’s great in all the different media. That’s what makes him uniquely what he was.”

Chevlowe said Shahn simply answered a traditional call-to-arms for artists to comment on the upheavals of their day.

“There were big crises in his time,” she said. “There’s a parallel between today and the time he lived in. There’s a lot of graphic artists involved in protest movements today. You see them in posters for migrants’rights.”

And what would be the eternal message of Shahn, then and now?

“The message is to speak up,” said Chevlowe. “That’s what his painting and graphics arts did. They spoke up.”

Admission to “If Not Now, When?” is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday. The exhibit is closed on Saturdays and Jewish and secular holidays. Discount parking is available for $8 at Grant Park South Garage, with Spertus validation. The exhibit can also be accessed via the Harrison Red Line subway stop two blocks away on State Street.

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