Arts & Culture

Artists and hard times

4 min read

Some decided to echo reality and reflect Depression in their work

Sometimes, creativity can help to illuminate the world.

Such is the case with the work of Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian-born American painter, muralist, graphic artist, and photographer.

After studying art abroad early in the 20th century, Shahn found the formalism and rich colors associated with early European modernism no longer appealing when he returned to New York City in the 1930s and saw a “changed economic reality.” Instead, he turned his creative eye to the street.

“What he finds, like so many artists of his generation, is a kind of revived vitality of the sidewalk,” said curator Deborah Martin Kao, who explored Shahn’s life and work during a discussion Tuesday (March 2) at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

Kao’s talk was part of an event titled “Creative Responses to Hard Times,” which explored the ways that some artists responded to economic distress. The afternoon event included a discussion of the Clifford Odets play “Paradise Lost” and a performance by the Living Newspaper company of New York.

The presentations were part of the Harvard Art Museum’s ongoing “Two-Point Perspective Gallery Talks,” a lecture series that offers visitors a chance to explore objects and topics from varied points of view. The talks are given by museum curators, conservators, and educators, Harvard faculty members, and outside scholars. The series, part of the museum’s effort to collaborate with departments from across the University on educational initiatives, was developed to help “stimulate thinking about works of art and encourage participants to explore their own ways of seeing.”

Inspired by newspaper photographs, Shahn took to Manhattan’s streets to capture photos of the era and everyday people. He could employ subterfuge in his quest for authenticity, noted Kao. He used a small, right-angle viewfinder that allowed him to point his camera in one direction while taking pictures of subjects actually off to the side, unaware of the lens.

Kao, head curator and Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the museum, discussed the differences in dress, immigrant status, and ethnicity present in a black-and-white photograph by Shahn from the early 1930s, and his drawing of the same scene. The works depict an African-American laborer leaning against a pilaster, juxtaposed with a seated white man in a suit.

In addition to the image’s gripping subject matter and “complicated structure,” Shahn’s work renders the viewer an active observer, said Kao.

“You are being put directly on the sidewalks of New York, directly on the stage of the living theater that he was interested in displaying. …You are literally being sandwiched into that street scene.”

Shahn’s work, added Kao, was seen as pushing back “against ideas of what high art is, how art should engage the everyday world, and what art can mean in the larger society.”

Next door, amid works of color and cubism by Gustav Klimt and Pablo Picasso, in the museum’s first-floor gallery, Whitney Eggers, dramaturge for the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), explained the ethos behind “Paradise Lost,” the play by American Clifford Odets.

The work, a vivid depiction of a middle class family’s struggle to survive during the Depression, is part of the A.R.T.’s current schedule. With his true-to-life theme and gritty dialogue, Odets captured the desperation of the times and broke from other plays of the era that betrayed a disconnect between “theater and audience, between the plays and the society in which they were being written,” said Eggers.

In Odets’ works, she noted, “Americans saw their own lives ennobled on the stage.”

According to Eggers, Odets called “Paradise Lost” his favorite play and wrote that the work “contains a depth of perception, a web of sensory impressions, and a level of both personal and social experience not allotted to my other plays.”

With worldwide economic woes again making headlines, the Living Newspaper company added another dimension to the theme with a brief performance that involved members of the A.R.T. and the audience. The company creates work from current news stories and emphasizes a connection “to the human story behind the news.”

In the museum’s lecture hall, the troupe took suggestions from the crowd and quickly created a brief sketch based on Harvard’s and the nation’s financial issues.