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Can a Tenement Fire Be a Microcosm for the Holocaust? Ben Shahn’s Hickman Drawings

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“People Wasn’t Made to Burn”: Ben Shahn and the Hickman Story

May 11 – August 29, 2010

The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago

5550 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago




Ben Shahn’s “Allegory” (1948), which is part of the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, shows a lion with a fiery mane standing in an abstract red, blue, green and purple landscape. A bright red-orange structure in the bottom left corner might be a burning building. Underneath the lion is a heap of people, probably dead but perhaps sleeping. The sky is also a mixture of fire and smoke and the painting resembles depictions of hell in medieval manuscripts, where eternal punishment is often personified as a menacing and demonic beast. Whatever the allegory Shahn is depicting, one can be sure it is not intended to be a happy setting.



Ben Shahn. “Allegory” (1948)



Writing in these pages on June 14, 2006, Richard McBee noted the “deep irony” in what he called the “Lion of Judah,” which “jealously guards a pathetic pile of bodies, pointing to both the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.” Although the lion, the “timeless image of the protector of the Jewish people,” is ferocious and fire breathing, McBee observed, Shahn interpreted it as “emaciated, ribs exposed even as there are so few survivors left to guard.” Like the thin cows in Pharaoh’s dream, this lion seems to be suffering from a supernatural malnourishment.


The heap of bodies guarded by the lion is also worth examining. Its origin can be traced to a pen and ink drawing Shahn made in 1948 as part of his series of 16 drawings, “Studies of the Hickman Murder Case.” The series, which originally appeared alongside John Bartlow Martin’s August 1948 story, “The Hickman story,” in Harper’s Magazine is currently on exhibit at University of Chicago’s Smart Museum in “‘People Wasn’t Made to Burn': Ben Shahn and the Hickman Story.”



Ben Shahn. “Studies of the Hickman Murder Case: Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people. People wasn’t made to burn.” 1948. Pen and ink on wove paper, reworked with white pigment. Smart Museum of Art.



The title of the show comes from the title of the drawing where Shahn laid out the composition for “Allegory”: “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people. People wasn’t made to burn.” On January 16, 1947, a fire killed four children (ages 14, nine, seven and three) in the attic of a tenement on the west side of Chicago. After losing four of his children, James Hickman, who told his surviving son that people were not meant to burn, shot the landlord, David Coleman, and killed him on July 16. The case was far more complicated than a simple homicide, though. Hickman alleged that the landlord had previously threatened to commission an associate to burn the house down if the Hickman family did not move out.


According to Joe Allen’s article “A Previously Unknown Individual” in the July-August 2009 issue of International Socialist Review, a Chicago firefighter described the fire as a “holocaust.” Allen also explains that Hickman was a man of faith:


On July 16, [Hickman] picked up his .32 caliber pistol and went to confront Coleman at his home on the South Side of Chicago. He found Coleman sitting in a car outside his house and accused him of setting the fire. Hickman later claimed that Coleman admitted it. Hickman, a deeply religious man, raised his pistol, looked Coleman straight in the eye and said, “God is my secret judge” and shot him four times. Coleman died three days later.



Though prosecutors pursued the death penalty, Hickman eventually was set free. According to Allen, the Socialist Workers Party in Chicago had something to do with Hickman’s release. The drawings at the Smart Museum show were a gift to the museum from Leon Despres, one of Hickman’s defense lawyers.


The rest of Allen’s article describes awful housing conditions in Chicago, where racism was rampant. (In this instance, both Hickman and Coleman were African Americans, but Allen observes, “Black landlords were as guilty as white landlords of making money hand over fist by cutting up apartments into smaller and smaller units called ‘kitchenettes.'”) In light of the firefighter’s use of the word “holocaust” to describe the tragedy, it is worth asking what the significance is of Shahn’s blend of Holocaust imagery with a symbol of segregation, racism and poverty.



Ben Shahn. “Studies of the Hickman Murder Case: She was born in June and she was beautiful.” Smart Museum of Art.



Shahn’s drawing of the Hickman children evokes Picasso’s “Guernica,” another work that represented a World War II tragedy. Just like the forms in the Cubist painting, which Picasso intended to be formally confusing, Shahn’s drawing is difficult to decipher. It is hard to tell which limb belongs to which child, and the work requires the viewer to see the bodies as a singular form rather than as a pile of disparate corpses.


The tendency to respond to victims of tragedies as anonymous statistics is surely a part of human nature that developed as a coping mechanism. If not for that propensity, every tragedy would be wholly paralyzing and we would never find a way to move on. But in the context of the Holocaust, where victims were first dehumanized and reduced to statistics long before they were murdered, it is particularly poignant to see a group of bodies that lack individuality.



Ben Shahn. “Studies of the Hickman Murder Case: I cannot understand how she escaped It was a miracle. The lord was with her.” Smart Museum of Art.



In a sense, if one approaches Shahn’s series from the perspective of reader-response theory, the tragedy of the fire (in the Hickman series) and the Holocaust (in “Allegory”) are all the more terrifying and devastating because the features of the victims are abstracted. And in that double tragedy (of both loss of life and loss of individuality) Shahn found room for comparison of the Hickman story and the Holocaust. When Shahn decided to create an allegory for the Holocaust, he may have racked his brain for the image that had affected him the most. He ultimately selected the Hickman children, who died not for any sins of their own, but because they were poor and African American and in the wrong place at the wrong time.



Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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