Ben Shahn (1898 – 1969)

If you only relied on the results of a quick Google search for Ben Shahn, you’d find him called a painter, a printmaker, a photographer. He dealt mostly with images. You’d wonder why I’d list him as a resource in a Typography class.


Shahn was known mostly as a social-realist painter. That means he intended to inspire social change, and he did it by painting in a realistic manner.

From Wikipedia (which is great source for a quick overview – make sure you follow up with additional sources) we learn that Shahn “often explored polemic themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration and injustice, [and] did so while maintaining a compassionate tone.” We also learn that he “defended his choice to employ pictorial realities, rather than abstract forms. According to Shahn, known forms allow the artist ‘to discover new truths about man and to reaffirm that his life is significant.’”

Keeping with his socialism, Shahn worked with Diego Rivera on numerous murals. He worked as a photographer (with Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange) for the Farms Security Administration during the Great Depression. He is also know for the series of gauche paintings “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” he made during the trials of two immigrant men wrongly found guilty of murder and executed for their anarchist beliefs.


So where does typography come in? Shahn was born in 1898 to a Jewish, Lithuanian family. He emigrated to New York and, in 1912, became apprenticed to a lithographer’s shop, where he studied lettering. Years later in his book “Love and Joy About Letters” Shahn describes how he had to draw the letter “A” hundreds of times before the foreman would accept it and allow him to draw the “B.”

In Shahn’s later work he used words and letters as part of his paintings. In “Love and Joy About Letters” he wrote:

“I realize that such a practice tends to roil the people who believe that painting should remain strictly within the confines of its own parish. But I believe that sensitivity is not departmentalized, and that art itself is not to be confined within hard boundaries. The inclination to see, to feel, to hear, to apprehend and understand form, to make new shapes and meanings out of the materials at hand, is simply a human capacity, and it appears in all sorts of unpredictable ways. I am sure that before Calder, few scholars would have included motion in sculpture.”

He often used Hebrew letters for their beauty and for their meaning. He also loved hand lettering found on amateur signs:

“It thins letters where they should be thick; it thickens them where they should be thin. It adds serifs where they don’t belong; it leaves them out where they do belong. Its spaces jump and its letters jump. It is cacophonous and utterly unacceptable. Being so, it is irresistibly interesting. …”

But Shahn didn’t use his Folk Alphabet just because he could (or just to break the rules).

“I first used the amateur or folk alphabet very seriously in making a print concerning Sacco and Vanzetti. I wanted to use the entire text of the historic statement of Vanzetti, the tragic words ending with ‘…that agony is our triumph.’ I wanted the words to be pictorial in their impact rather than to have a printed look. And I wanted them to be serious. The folk alphabet seemed appropriate to the halting English as well as to the eloquent meaning of the words. Furthermore, this alphabet, with its unfamiliar structures, halted the reading somewhat and produced a slower effect, and all this seemed to me desirable.”

“I found the alphabet appropriate again in a big poster that I made for the Jazz Ballet. I had always sensed it in a jazz rhythm, broken and staccato. Often, I used it simply to pique the experts, but only if I felt it right for a given space. I used it increasingly and then, to my amazement, began to see it used by others. An editor friend of mine, speaking at an American Institute of Graphic Arts affair, said, ‘Shahn is a subversive! He has subverted you all. You all used to have some sense of letters and lettering; now you are all using that alphabet!’”

Text By or About Shahn

I was able to find text written about Shahn on Wikipedia and the Art Director’s Club sites. But neither text deals with his typography. If you are interested in Shahn, you would probably have to go to the stacks and find a book or article (in a Journal) to find an appropriate text to use for our exhibition catalog project.

All Shahn quotes here are from the book “Love and Joy About Letters” (Shahn, 1963)

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