For One Day Only: $1=$4, Thanks to Matching from BIG Donors
“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.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Comments are closed.
Anna Henriques, who hopes to one day head back to Jamaica, says, “Rabbi Raskin must be willing to respect what exists in Jamaica. The way to the future is to gently bring in the traditions of the past and at the same time embrace the idiosyncrasies of the Jamaican people.”
The Silver Platter has it all: gorgeous photography, oodles of useful tips and, more importantly, incredible recipes that you will find yourself making again and again.
It is very hard to build a healthy marriage when you do not have good role models.
We tend to justify and idealize this division with pride attributing these tendencies as demonstrating a higher level of kedushah.
Everyone in the kehilla can get involved, she added, and mothers can network with each other.
On her first ever trip to Israel last week, popular radio talk-show personality and clinical psychologist Dr. Joy Browne, whose spirited broadcasts regularly attract millions of listeners across North America, paid a visit to OneFamily headquarters in Jerusalem in order to learn more about the physical and emotional challenges faced by victims of terror in […]
With the famous Touro Synagogue, a variety of mansions, each with its own distinct personality, as well as the beautiful coast, Rhode Island makes for an excellent vacation spot.
To avoid all this waste and unnecessary anxiety, let’s break the task down step by step and tackle each one at a time.
While there are those who insist they need full-color photos to be truly entranced by a recipe, I suggest you get over that particular requirement because the written word here will draw you in and cause you to salivate as you peruse the recipes scattered throughout The Well-Spiced Life (Israel Book Shop).
The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”
It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.
One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)
Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.
It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.
Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.
The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?
Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/can-a-tenement-fire-be-a-microcosm-for-the-holocaust-ben-shahns-hickman-drawings/2010/06/30/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: