An Artist for the Downtrodden in JMU Exhibit

Mar 31, 2017

Ben Shahn, For All These Rights, We've Just Begun to Fight (1946), offset photolithograph, Madison Art Collection, Gift of the Ben Shahn Estate. @Estate of Ben Shahn, VAGA, New York, N.Y.
Credit Courtesy of Laura Katzman

An exhibition centering on the artwork of Ben Shahn has attracted a stream of visitors to James Madison University.  Shahn advocated for the downtrodden from the 1930s through the 1960s. WMRA’s Bonnie Barrineau reports.

Since doing her doctoral dissertation on Ben Shahn, art history professor Laura Katzman has been passionate about his contributions.

KATZMAN: From the New Deal to the Civil Rights movement – which is the time period covered in this exhibition – Ben Shahn responded to the economic insecurity of the Great Depression, the natural disasters of the Dust Bowl, [and] the war on Fascism that was raging the time. He was very responsive to issues of civil liberties – racial discrimination, religious discrimination…

Katzman spent four years gathering 90 examples of Shahn’s paintings, prints, photographs, and drawings for the current exhibition.

KATZMAN: We’ve borrowed from several institutions. This is the first time the Smithsonian has been able to lend works to JMU. We’re thrilled to have four paintings from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Shahn was raised in a Lithuanian-Jewish family who immigrated to the United States seeking greater social justice.

KATZMAN: The Civil Rights part of the exhibition is really the core of the exhibition, and some of the most powerful images are part of that section, particularly images of Martin Luther King.

There’s been a steady stream of visitors to the gallery in its first six weeks, including groups from Washington D.C. and Richmond.

KATZMAN: I’ve been giving tours around the clock. We’ve had student groups – not only art students, but students from across the campus in fields like justice studies, history, political science, religion, philosophy.

The exhibit closes for good  on April 5th, which means that next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday represent your last chance to see it. 

The Duke Hall Gallery opens at 10 am each weekday and closes at 5, except for this Monday, when the hours will be extended to 7:30 for a special event linked to the show.