Tuesday, November 09, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #4 - The Riveter

The Riveter (mural study, Bronx, New York central postal station), 1938, Ben Shahn, tempera on paperboard, image: 33 x 14 3/4 in. (83.8 x 37.5 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum

Here's another connection with Diego Rivera! It was a small art world during the Great Depression! Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a can do kind of artist - he cleaned paint brushes for Rivera when he painted the Rockefeller Center mural, took pictures for the FSA in California and painted his own murals in a government-sponsored model community in New Jersey. He came from a Jewish Eastern European immigrant family and through perseverance made his way to Brooklyn. His main style of art is social realism, a style that featured the hard life of the working poor and criticized the social structure that causes such problems. His first major work, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti was spawned by Shan's sympathetic leanings for the defendants as a liberal immigrant himself.

His career included not only working with Rivera, but also with Walker Evans, a well known photographer that taught Shahn about working with cameras. When he was not awarded some mural proposals, Evans recommended Shahn to another government agency, the Resettlement Administration. Traveling through the South and Midwest with his love and companion, Bernarda Bryson, he documented the life he saw, but photography was not to be the medium of choice for Shahn. Photography was a study for his paintings. He continued getting commissions, including a mural at the Bronx Central Postal Station.

The Riveter was a study using tempera on paperboard for the "Resources for America" mural cycle at the Bronx Central Postal Station. The compelling composition uses the vertical space to box the workman into a compressed space. You can think of it as though you had put a photo into Photoshop and cropped tightly down on the subject. This compressed scene focuses on one worker. The environment he is in, which you see little of because of this close up study, seems to be a factory. There is a lot of ambiguity to the painting - what city is he in, what kind of factory is this, what is he working on? By keeping the details vague, this one workman symbolizes factories and workers all across America doing the same type of work. The face of the worker is not complete enough for clear identification. Even the color palette of coveralls and skin color blend together so you're not sure what ethnicity he is from. The white gloves provide a focal point with a red power cord leading from the machine. It looks like an artery not only in color but in the placement of the composition and serves as a symbol for industry being the heart of the American economy.

Shahn won this commission out of 189 submissions. Perhaps because his composition combines the universal with the realistic and his ability to represent such an important aspect of American life - industry. It represented every man and was easy for any viewer to understand. During this time of the Great Depression, his painting did not focus on the unemploymed, but the employed by putting the worker on a pedestal and making him the heart of American industry.

1 comment:

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The face of the worker is not complete enough for clear identification. yes,i agree!