Ben Shahn, The Red Stairway, 1944
16 x 24 in.
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a Jewish-American painter of the Social Realist style, also known for his left-wing politics. Shahn was born in the Pale, in what is now Lithuania, but his family emigrated to the United States in 1906 and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Among Shahn's most common themes is an exploration of the indomitable spirit of humanity. The Red Stairway depicts a crippled man with only one leg as he climbs a very steep staircase. He climbs away from rubble and devastation, but if he follows the stairs back down on the other side, he will only find the same destruction. Nevertheless he keeps climbing, keeps moving forward, striving to reach a better place. He doesn't see the destruction on the other side of the stairs, and because of that his fate remains uncertain. As he overcomes his handicap, this man's final destination has not been decided. This painting is considered a reaction to the destruction of World War II, when senseless violence wrought so much destruction. Nevertheless, humanity has no choice but to keep moving forward. Shahn wrote that this painting was about "both the hope and fate of man," and also spoke people's inability to communicate. The disconnect between the man climbing the stairs and the figure on the right is palpable; they may be able to help each other but there is a gulf between them. The painting is done in tempera, which accounts for the sense of flatness in the canvas. This gives the piece an interesting sense of space, wherein the other side of the staircase is both so far away and just in front of us. Shahn created a painting that is deliberately ambiguous, reflecting the extreme uncertainty that pervaded the world as World War II swept Europe and the Pacific.