Ben Shahn: activist and artist
Ben Shahn said, “I hate injustice. I guess that’s about the only thing I really do hate.” Born in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1898, Shahn grew up in a family of leftist political activists. When Shahn was only four years old, his socialist father was exiled to Siberia because the Russian government suspected he was a revolutionary. Shahn remembered launching his own sort of protest as a child when he would shout “Down with the Czar!” at anyone wearing a uniform. As he recalled, “the air [in Russia] was filled with this whole revolutionary idea.” 
The Sacco and Vanzetti case
The case against Sacco and Vanzetti was troubled from the start by ethnic bigotry and political intolerance. Both men were Italian immigrants, drawn to the United States by the promise of freedom and democracy. But upon arrival, poverty and poor working conditions propelled them toward the radical communist and anarchist thinking of Luigi Galleani. The Galleanisti, as his followers were called, believed that capitalism was an evil economic system that disadvantaged workers to the point of desperation and that violence would be the most effective revolutionary strategy. Sacco and Vanzetti’s association with such a militant political group, along with their participation in labor strikes and evasion of the World War I military draft in 1917, placed them on the federal government’s watch list of dangerous subversives.
Outrage and irony in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
Shahn followed Sacco and Vanzetti’s case closely and believed, like many people around the world, that the two men were not given a fair trial. Shahn participated in protests in support of their release in the 1920s and made twenty-three images about the Sacco and Vanzetti affair in 1931 and 1932. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco (1931-32) were based on photographs that appeared in newspapers. He returned to the Sacco and Vanzetti case in drawings and prints in the 1950s and used The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti as part of the composition for a large mosaic at Syracuse University in 1967.
In Shahn’s early and iconic tempera-on-canvas painting, Sacco and Vanzetti lie in coffins in the foreground in front of a colonnaded neoclassical courthouse (image left). On the porch behind them hangs a portrait of the trial judge, Webster Thayer. Towering over Sacco and Vanzetti are the members of the committee that reviewed their convictions: Samuel Stratton, the president of MIT; Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president; and Robert Grant, a retired judge. These four men represent the wealthy, intellectual Massachusetts establishment, which was openly hostile to the radical ideals that Sacco and Vanzetti embodied.
Shahn used irony in this painting as a way of indicting Thayer, Stratton, Lowell, and Grant for the roles they played in Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution. In the background, Thayer raises his right hand as if he is taking an oath to uphold justice, but he faces a lamppost that resembles the bundle of sticks known as a fasces (image below). Once known as a symbol of judicial power, the fasces became a symbol for Italian fascism and oppression in the 1920s. Indeed, Thayer’s bias against immigrants and political radicals was widely known. He presided over Sacco and Vanzetti’s initial conviction and denied all motions for retrial. In response to public outcry, Lowell and his two cohorts were tasked with reviewing the proceedings and summarily upheld Sacco and Vanzetti’s convictions and death sentences after only ten days of deliberation.
Shahn explained in a 1944 interview, “Ever since I could remember I’d wished that I’d been lucky enough to be alive at a great time—when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion. And suddenly realized I was! Here I was living through another crucifixion. Here was something to paint!”  The term “passion” in his title connects Sacco and Vanzetti’s deaths with Jesus’s martyrdom (the “Passion of Christ” refers to the period at the end of his life leading to the crucifixion). Shahn also painted in tempera, a matte medium that was used by Italian Renaissance artists for Christian panel paintings, but rarely by modernists in the twentieth century. His composition hearkens back to images of the Lamentation of Christ, but his mourning scene lacks the emotional force that typically accompanies Jesus’ death and burial. The three men in the foreground, Stratton, Lowell, and Grant, wear expressions that communicate placid resolve rather than sorrow. They seem uncomfortable and awkwardly crowded together in Shahn’s painting as they half-heartedly offer white lilies, symbols of goodness and purity, to the deceased. Here Shahn forces these men to bear witness to the injustice that they refused to prevent.
Shahn’s long career
Shahn’s career took off in the 1930s as his brand of realism resonated during the Great Depression when American audiences demanded that art communicate directly and serve a social purpose. Works like his photograph and painting of striking miners from Scotts Run, West Virginia (1935 and 1937) chronicled that decade’s challenges and contributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to use art to help the nation weather the crisis.
From the 1940s until his death in 1969, as Abstract Expressionism came to the fore in the United States, Shahn’s style evolved and his works became more symbolic, expressionistic, and even surreal. But he continually strove to portray dramatic, but universal human experiences like tragedy and survival in Liberation (1945), Age of Anxiety (1953), and the Lucky Dragon series (1960-62) with empathy and sincerity. The commitment to social justice that he established so clearly in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti persisted throughout his career.
Frances Pohl, Ben Shahn (Pomegranate Communications, 1993), p.12