Ben Shahn's California Justice
|Ben Shahn, Apotheosis, 1932-1933|
|Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-1932. Whitney Museum|
As an attempt to tell a complex story in Renaissance-style continuous narrative, Apotheosis is not as successful as Sacco and Vanzetti. Still, it's easy to understand why LACMA coveted it, as one of the last major Shahns out there. Apotheosis blends caricature, painterly flatness, and a stateside surrealism informed by quattrocento Italy.
|Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827. Louvre|
|Ben Shahn, My Son is Innocent, 1932|
|Ben Shahn, Demonstration, 1933|
Maybe the best painting of the cycle is Governor James Rolph, Jr, of California, shown as a top-hatted, boutonniered grotesque. Rolph ran on pardoning Mooney (back when Republicans campaigned on freeing radical leftists convicted on terrorism charges). He didn't deliver. Shahn's portrait is here, but he didn't include Rolph in Apotheosis.
In the 1933 brochure for the first showing of the Mooney cycle, at New York's Downtown Gallery, Diego Rivera found in Shahn a kindred spirit. Rivera wrote,
The English esthete, John Ruskin, said many years ago, something to the effect that lilies and peacocks are beautiful without serving any utilitarian purpose. Some time later the great painter, Picasso, added: "Art is twice beautiful because it is useless." But we painters of the people of the American continent proclaim: "Whatever is not five times useful is not beautiful."
Rivera was speaking against the white-cube (and white-people) grain of this time. In many ways Apotheosis is prescient, a marker of a change in sensibility from "art for art's sake" to "all art is political."