One Must See Many Things:

Selections from Ben Shahn's Rilke Portfolio

Known for his linear and abstracted images of the human body, Ben Shahn became one of the leading American Social Realist artists in the 1930s. Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist of Jewish descent whose practice was deeply rooted in a commitment to social justice. Throughout his career, Shahn created powerful images that directly addressed human suffering, from war-torn landscapes to intimate views of loneliness and poverty. 

Shahn also explored the connections between art and life, as in this portfolio based on German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). This loosely autobiographical novel presents a student who is the last descendant of a noble Danish family, and follows his life from birth to a grim, poverty-stricken experience as a student in Paris. The novel expressed Rilke’s growing doubts about whether anything existed that was superior to mankind and his world. Shahn, who first became acquainted with Rilke’s writing while in Paris in 1928, began illustrating Rilke’s work during the decade to follow, evoking each line of Rilke’s autobiographical prose elegantly through his images. This exhibition features a selection of twenty lithographs from Ben Shahn’s Rilke Portfolio: For the Sake of a Single Verse.


Credit: Ben Shahn (American, born Lithuania, 1898–1969). The First Word of Verse Arises (detail), 1968. Lithograph. Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Gift of Dr. Robert Arnold, 1976.031

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