4.33. Ben Shahn, painting ‘Third Allegory’ (1955)

The Jewish American artist of Lithuanian origin Ben Shahn (1898-1969) produced three large paintings related by their titles: Allegory (1948), Second Allegory (1953), and Third Allegory (1955). Allegory shows a imaginary beast of huge dimensions with sharp teeth and flaming manes, and a group of dead children between his legs, while it is not clear whether he is their attacker or their defender. Second Allegory shows a giant, vertical arm with a downward pointing hand; under the index finger lies a man on his back with his eyes wide open for fear and his hands in a defensive gesture. The hand is unmistakably God’s and the idea of the divine and eternal is enhanced by a number of stereometric forms on the right side of the painting. Third Allegory shows a shofar blower and a lion carrying the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments with the city of Jerusalem in the background.

 

third-allegory

Fig. 6. Ben Shahn, Third Allegory. Tempera on paper. 91,4 x 61 cm. Reproduced by permission of the Vatican Museums.

Both the art historians Frances K. Pohl and Matthew Baigell interpret the three Allegories as a series referring to the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel. According to Baigell, the themes of the three works are successively “death,” “survival,” and “triumph and redemption, both in biblical times after the Covenant had been reinscribed on the second set of tablets and in modern times after the foundation of the state of Israel.” *Baigell, American Artists, Jewish Images 102. “Allegory in the Work of Ben Shahn” 111-41.

This interpretation of the three Allegories as a series is only partly convincing. In his 1956-57 lecture “The Biography of a Painting,” *“The Biography of a Painting.” The Shape of Content 25-33 Shahn analyzes Allegory without connecting it to Second Allegory or Third Allegory, nor to the Shoah. The immediate source of Allegory with its “somewhat cryptic title” *Ibid. 25 was not the Holocaust, but a Chicago fire, in which a man had lost his four children.” *Ibid. 26. Thinking of this event, Shahn began to sketch a hybrid monster, which represented the terror of the fire and gradually took another form:

When I at last turned the lion-like beast into a painting, I felt able to imbue it with everything that I had ever felt about a fire. . . . In the beast as I worked upon it I recognized a number of creatures . . . And then, there was the wolf. . . . I had always found disconcerting the familiar sculpture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the She-Wolf. . . . Now I found that, whether by coincidence or not I am unable to say, the stance of my imaginary beast was just that of the great Roman wolf, and that the children under its belly might almost be a realization of my vague fears that, instead of suckling the children, the wolf would most certainly destroy them. *Ibid. 31-2.

Fire is a well-known metaphor for the Shoah, as the original meaning of the term Holocaust (“burnt offering”) reveals, while the wolf was often used as a symbol of Nazism and even inspired Adolf Hitler’s personal nickname “Wolf.” *Cf. Sax, “The Aryan Wolf.” Animals in the Third Reich 72-80. Cf. also Chapter 4.13 on Leyvik’s poem about a wolf as a threat to a Jewish community.

Whereas Allegory could well symbolize the Shoah, it is much more difficult to connect Second Allegory to “survival;” first, it is not obvious that the human figure is a Jew, and second, the painting pictures an act of threat or punishment instead of a contribution to survival. With regard to Third Allegory, the problem in interpreting this painting as a reference to the founding of the State of Israel are the many crosses, which are difficult to reconcile with the self-image of the Jewish state.

The composition of Third Allegory reveals a prominent grid with three vertical and four horizontal strips, producing twelve rectangles. Of the three vertical strips, the left one contains the lion’s head; the middle the two stone tablets and shofar; and the right one the torso of the shofar blower. The four horizontal strips contain, from bottom to top, the lion’s paws and the legs of the shofar blower; the lion’s body; the lion’s head, the stone tablets and the torso of the shofar blower; and the city, the shofar and the head of the shofar blower. Whether these numbers 3, 4, and 12 have a symbolic meaning in the painting, is not clear; perhaps they are to be connected to the now united twelve tribes of Israel. Anyway, the grid leaves a general impression of an order, which is defended by the sharp wedges of the lion’s teeth and claws. Even more prominent in the painting are the vertical lines in the towers, the stone tablets, the shofar blower’s tunic, and both the lion’s “prayer shawl” and legs; this verticality might represent the dialogue between God and His creation. There is a visual rhyme of upward curves in the shofar, the Hebrew letter lamed on the stone tablets—lamed being the first letter of lo (“not”) in the commandments beginning with “You shall not”—and the lion’s tongue. These three visual elements represent three aspects of the authoritative discourse of the Law: the shofar announces the giving of the Ten Commandments, the curved and wedged lameds on the stone tablets represent the Law itself and the lion’s mouth represents its defense.

Matthew Baigell draws attention to the similarity of the dominating colors in Third Allegory with the colors of the gifts for the Lord in Exod. 35:5-6: gold, blue, purple, and crimson. *American Artists, Jewish Images 102. He does not mention the fact that all colors of the painting appear as well in the strips of the shofar blower’s tunic, which might allude to Joseph’s tunic in Gen. 37:3, the more so because there is a connection between Joseph and the shofar, in Ps. 81:4-6: “Blow the horn on the new moon, . . . 5 For it is a law for Israel, / a ruling of the God of Jacob; / 6 He imposed it as a decree upon Joseph / when he went forth from the land of Egypt[.]” These verses are quoted in the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 64, 618 and were set to music by Ofer Ben-Amots. *Chapter 4.48. Strongly contrasting with the colorful tunic is the shofar blower’s face in grey, the color of ʿafar va-ʾefer (“dust and ashes”), symbolizing Abraham’s humility in Gen. 18:27 and Job’s repentance towards God in Job 30:19 and 42:6.

The lion is not only a symbol in Jewish art, where it is pictured as the guard of the Ark, but also the emblem of the tribe of Judah and contemporary Jerusalem. It is often the symbol of strength and power, and therefore, the old shofar blower Reb Shimen in Perets’ short story The Shofar *Chapter 4.4 is proud to be compared with a lion. The two stone tablets carried by the lion in Third Allegory—not the Ark itself but its content—bear the initial Hebrew letters of the Ten Commandments from Exod. 20:1-14. In many works, Shahn shows his great interest in the Hebrew alphabet.

In a letter to Ben Shahn from 1955, the art collector Kathryn Yochelson labeled Third Allegory a work “showing the arc brought by oxen into the tabernacle.” Though the pictured animal is without doubt a lion instead of a horned ox, Yochelson may be influenced by a story Shahn told about his youth. Until his emigration to America at the age of 8, he was a pupil in a Lithuanian ḥeder; one day, they read 2 Sam. 6:1-15, in which David brings the Ark to Jerusalem on a cart pulled by an ox. When the ox stumbles, one of the men grabs the Ark to prevent it from falling down, whereupon he is killed by God for touching the holy object. “I refused to go to school for a week after we read that story,” said Shahn. “It seemed so damn unfair. And it still does.” *Shahn, Interview with John D. Morse. In Pohl, “Allegory in the Work of Ben Shahn” 129. In 1956, Shahn confirmed the theme of the painting in a pencil note in a letter to J. Strassberg, picture research editor of Wisdom magazine: *Wisdom: The Magazine of Knowledge and Education (1956-1964) “3rd Allegory—arc into Temple,” *Shahn, Interview with John D. Morse 129 without labeling the animal.

According to Frances K. Pohl, the city is not only Jerusalem, but also Jericho. *Ibid. 134. What speaks against this is the lion, which does not figure in Josh. 6, and the single shofar blower, who is backed by six colleagues and an army in this story. Matthew Baigell suggests that the golden towers are part of Solomon’s Temple. *American Artists, Jewish Images 102. Gold was indeed used in the first Temple, but only on the inside of the building. *Manuel Herz’s synagogue has gold-plated walls. Chapter 4.70. 2 Chron. 9:17-9 mentions Solomon’s ivory throne, overlaid with gold and with twelve lions on the steps. In addition, no spires are mentioned in the descriptions and reconstructions of the first Temple.

In a painting like Third Allegory with a strong Jewish character, the crosses on the spires in the city may seem foreign elements; Ben Shahn, however, was broad-minded and very much interested in other religions, as his wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, could confirm:

[H]e still rejected all personal identification with sect or creed. He deeply appreciated the observances, the ritual and lore of his inherited Judaism but was also profoundly moved by the sonorous Masses of Catholicism and, again, by the tough spirit of early Protestantism. *Bryson Shahn, Ben Shahn 257.

Another indication for this broad-mindedness can be found in the painting Ram’s Horn and Menorah (1958), with a variant on the shofar blower in Third Allegory. Above the shofar blower, right across the width of the painting, there are two Hebrew lines in gold, quoting Mal. 2:10: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” Below the shofar, there are five heads with different skin colors. Though Malachi’s “we” probably applies to Israel and his “Father” to the God of Israel or the patriarchs, in particular Jacob, his statement is often applied to other religions and peoples. Anyway, Shahn’s use of both Jewish and non-Jewish symbols in one work of art is not new and is already known from synagogues from Byzantine Palestine with signs of the zodiac next to a menorah and a shofar in mosaic floors. *Levine, The Ancient Synagogue 570.

In Third Allegory, the Present is directed by the Past in a fanciful way, because Shahn pictured the chronotope of Jerusalem with elements from different Pasts; possibly, he did not do this as a modern artist who permits himself the artistic license of a few anachronisms, but as an artist with quite a traditional view of history. In his orthodox-Jewish education, Shahn was taught that biblical events were part of his own present moment, and according to Baigell, “that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were ‘the parents’ of his own grandparents, parents, and himself. Time past blending with time present, then, was part of his collective communal memory.” *Baigell, Jewish Art in America 123.

 

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