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Art in the Atomic Age: Ben Shahn's Stop H-Bomb Tests
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Art in the Atomic Age:
Ben Shahn’s Stop H-Bomb Tests

For now we have entered the atomic age, and war has undergone a technological change which makes it a very different thing from what it used to be. War today between the Soviet empire and the free nations might dig the grave not only of our Stalinist opponents, but of our own society, our world as well as theirs.

—President Harry S. Truman, State of the Union Address, 1953

I doubt that what now seems to be an atomic age, or is in any case a scientifico-mechanical age, will ever be greatly distinguished for its contribution to the human spirit.

—Ben Shahn, “American Painting at Mid-Century: An Unorthodox View,” April 1951

There is much about man and about his environment still to be learned and crystallized in art. One could hope that there might arise out of such an effort a resurgence of Humanism. And in this era of almost total mechanization and H-Bombs I, myself, feel that this objective is of first importance.

—Ben Shahn, “Just What Is Realism In Art,” November-December 1950

Introduction: Ben Shahn’s Posters

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Figure 1.

Ben Shahn, Stop H-Bomb Tests, silkscreen, poster, n.d., 45 x 35 in. (sheet). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. Photograph by Carl Kaufman. © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Stop H-Bomb Tests (figure 1) is a screenprint poster that Ben Shahn (1898–1969) made in 1960 for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Given Shahn’s working-class origins and commitment to the major liberal causes of his day, such a poster is appropriate for this reform-minded artist. Shahn began making posters early on in his career—hard-hitting ones for labor unions, New Deal government agencies, political campaigns and non-profit organizations, and later, lyrical ones for exhibitions, concerts, theater, and festivals. 1 Shahn considered his posters of equal importance to his paintings, claiming to be more interested in the image than the medium of his work. Still, he must have found the democratic and practical dimensions of posters particularly appealing. Posters can reach mass audiences, involve collaboration, and like his other graphic work (often used for commercial purposes), their marketability allowed him to supplement his painting income. 2

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Figure 2.

Ben Shahn, This is Nazi Brutality, photo-offset in colors, poster, 1942, 37 ⅞ x ¼ in. The Stephen Lee Taller Ben Shahn Archive, Berkeley, CA. © Estate of Ben Shahn/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Shahn’s most famous (and monetarily valuable) posters are the 1930s and 1940s socio-political works, some considered controversial at the time because of their perceived radical, violent, and/or unappealing content (figure 2). These posters are distinguished by their bold, worker subjects, expressive use of faces and hands, illusions of layered tempera or gouache surfaces, and successful integration of image and text. Despite their succinct and iconic formal power (transcending specific propagandistic messages), they are historicized with naturalistic detail and topical texts. [End Page 139] A good number, in fact, were inspired by documentary photographs Shahn made and to which he had access during his tenure at the Resettlement Administration/ Farm Security Administration (RA/FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI). 3

Stop H-Bomb Tests departs from Shahn’s earlier poster style, relying on a more reductive, linear, and semi-abstract language to convey its blunt message. As in much of his later work, forms are simplified or universalized into symbolic, two-dimensional shapes. Shahn attempted with such forms to speak to broader audiences without succumbing to what he saw as impersonal generalities. 4

The poster shares elements with the then newly emerging Pop Art, as well as with innovative graphic design and advertising, in its flattened space; cartoonish, unmodelled forms; stylized, blocky letters; saturated colors; and slick, machine-tooled [End Page 140] surface. (Shahn was in fact one of the most influential graphic artists of the period.) 5 In Stop H-Bomb Tests, he brought these sources together to create a compelling anti-nuclear message...