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Between and Mortarboard


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Part of a Trio


    When the print was exhibited in 1964, it appeared alongside two other serigraphs: one featured the same image, but with a quote from Sacco written in the folk alphabet and printed in the folk typeface that would become characteristic of Shahn’s prints under it, and the other featured just the quote1:

     “If it had not been for these thing, I might live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for joostice, for man’s onderstanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words- our lives- our pains nothing! The taking of our lives- lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler- all! That last moment belongs to us- That agony is our triumph.”

    Though the quote is Sacco’s, parts can be read as applicable to Shahn’s life as well: the case was instrumental in Shahn’s transformation from an artist of aesthetic emphasis to social emphasis. Shahn’s exploration of the Sacco and Vanzetti case marked a turning point in his art in 1931. Up until his depictions of the case, descriptions of his art as “professional” haunted him: his work was polished, but dominated by its aesthetics rather than meaning. His first three paintings began his change to a more personal art as he allowed his art to become a vessel for his political activism.The case enabled Shahn to find the “soul” he had been searching for with which to imbue his work.

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& Author Notes

All Rights Reserved (1. Prescott, Kenneth. The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn, (New York, The New York Times Book Company, 1973), xvii. )

Last Updated

December 11, 2017 12:32 p.m.

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