Lithuanian-born artist Ben Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s and created his own visually powerful, technically sophisticated, and stylistically innovative artworks as part of the New Deal Arts Project's national mural program. In" Ben Shahn's New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene" author Diana L. Linden demonstrates that Shahn mined his Jewish heritage and left-leaning politics for his style and subject matter, offering insight into his murals' creation and their sometimes complicated reception by officials, the public, and the press.
In four chapters, Linden presents case studies of select Shahn murals that were created from 1933 to 1943 and are located in public buildings in New York, New Jersey, and Missouri. She studies Shahn's famous untitled fresco for the Jersey Homesteads-a utopian socialist cooperative community populated with former Jewish garment workers and funded under the New Deal-Shahn's mural for the Bronx Central Post Office, a fresco Shahn proposed to the post office in St. Louis, and a related one-panel easel painting titled "The First Amendment" located in a Queens, New York, post office. By investigating the role of Jewish identity in Shahn's works, Linden considers the artist's responses to important issues of the era, such as President Roosevelt's opposition to open immigration to the United States, New York's bustling garment industry and its labor unions, ideological concerns about freedom and liberty that had signifcant meaning to Jews, and the encroachment of censorship into American art.
Linden shows that throughout his public murals, Shahn literally painted Jews into the American scene with his subjects, themes, and compositions. Readers interested in Jewish American history, art history, and Depression-era American culture will enjoy this insightful volume.