Ben Shahn, the Four Freedoms, and the Ss St. Louis

By Linden, Diana L. | American Jewish History, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Ben Shahn, the Four Freedoms, and the Ss St. Louis


Linden, Diana L., American Jewish History


In 1934, as part of the New Deal art programs, the Treasury Department created the Section of Painting and Sculpture (the Section) to secure "art of the best quality available" for new federal buildings. Section officials often awarded commissions on the basis of anonymous competitions.(1) The Section upheld specific stylistic and thematic standards by which they judged the entries: the executed murals were to be narrative, realistic, and celebratory and depict subject matter related to the local community. In the spring of 1939 the Section invited artists from throughout the nation to anonymously submit proposals comprised of nine mural studies to decorate the St. Louis Post Office. The American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), by that time already an established muralist, painter and photographer, submitted designs. He grouped the nine required studies into three themes of his own choosing: the First Amendment's four freedoms guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, peaceful assembly, and citizens' right to petition the government; the arrival of immigrants in the United States to begin new lives of opportunity and freedom; and Missouri history, with scenes of river traffic, wagon trains, and frontier life. The jury did not select his designs. However, the following year, 1940, on the basis of his St. Louis proposal, officials invited Shahn to submit designs for a New York City project. Shahn compressed his St. Louis studies into one single canvas representing America's constitutional rights, and in 1941 Shahn installed The Four Freedoms in the Woodhaven Branch Post Office, Queens, New York, where it remains on view (fig. 1).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The general theme of The Four Freedoms and the subtheme of immigration unite the St. Louis and Queens projects, themes of personal relevance to Shahn, who was an immigrant and was active in the antifascist American Artists' Congress and the Popular Front. By discussing the federal policies concerning immigration during the 1930s leading up to 1941, which marks the end of the refugee phase of the Holocaust, the events which inspired Shahn's murals are highlighted.(2) Resituating Shahn's work within the context of these events, best exemplified by the tragedy of the SS St. Louis, explains the artist's message and its urgency. More than a passive reflection of his social environment, Shahn's murals were the artist's attempt to address and rectify social policy.

It is important to describe the community in which Shahn worked, one vastly different from St. Louis and where the issue of immigration was of universal concern. Shahn created his proposal for the St. Louis Post Office while living in the Jersey Homesteads, New Jersey, a workers' cooperative established by Eastern European Jews from the garment factories and supported by German-Jewish refugee Albert Einstein. Shahn had recently completed a mural for the town's community center, paid for with federal funds, chronicling the history of immigration, labor reforms, and progressive New Deal programs. The fresco includes what is believed to be the only image of a Nazi figure in a New Deal mural--shown carrying German signs reading "Germans beware: don't buy from Jews"--and such prominent refugees as Einstein arriving in the United States (fig. 2).(3) Along with others in his community, Shahn was worried about the fate of the Jews in Europe; many Homestead residents or their relatives, including Shahn's father, had been persecuted under the tsar and as a result saw parallels between the past and the present crises. In November 1938, in response to Kristallnacht and with great faith in President Roosevelt, town residents passed the following resolution:

   Be it resolved that the Council of the Borough of Jersey Homesteads hereby
   express its profound horror at the bestial attacks upon the helpless
   minorities of Germany and requests the President of the United States to
   declare his condemnation of these barbaric acts in the spirit in which the
   late President Theodore Roosevelt acted on behalf of our government after
   the notorious Kishinev pogroms in 1904. … 

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