New York

Bernarda Bryson Shahn

Midtown Payson Galleries

This well-rounded retrospective of Bernarda Bryson Shahn’s work highlighted the range of her accomplishments, including prints, drawings, illustrations, and paintings. Beginning with Crash, a lithograph from 1929 depicting two buildings in the throes of upheaval, which might be taken as a metaphorical comment on the Depression, the show covered more than six decades of work. Whether Bryson Shahn depicted snippets of contemporary American life or ancient myths, the results were characteristically wry and thought provoking.

For this artist, the worlds of art and literature are as inextricably bound as are her knowledge of history and culture with her social concerns. It was as a correspondent for the Ohio State Journal, for instance, that she came to New York City in 1933 to write about the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and met Ben Shahn, then one of Rivera’s assistants on the controversial Rockefeller Center commission. She moved to New York the following year, found work as a lithographer on a federal arts project, PWAP, and married Shahn in 1935. The prints she did in the mid and late ’30s, such as Dust Storm, 1936, were a result of the extensive trip she made with her husband as part of the government-sponsored effort to have the nation’s artists and photographers document the plight of the rural regions hit hard by the Depression.

Starting in the ’40s, when the couple’s three children were small, Bryson Shahn applied her skills as a graphic artist to the field of free-lance illustration and became a contributor to a number of magazines, including Fortune, Life, Harper’s, and Scientific American. Of the examples of original pen-and-ink illustrations exhibited here, the ones of the Princeton University Eating Club and of Senator Taft being groomed for his role as the 1948 Republican presidential candidate best exhibited her laconic brand of satire and direct and flowing style of rendering.

The importance of drawing and the graphic arts to Bryson Shahn was further demonstrated by the selections of illustrated books from the ’50s and ’60s, which included classics such as Wuthering Heights, children’s books, and those she wrote herself, such as Gilgamesh, 1966–67, based on ancient Near Eastern mythologies. The ink, charcoal, and watercolor illustrations reveal just how well the medium of drawing served her imagination. As Bryson Shahn has remarked: “Drawing is a language for me; it’s a literary occupation; it’s responsive and expressive.”

In 1972, several years after her husband died, she turned to oil painting, a medium that had last occupied her in the ’20s. Working in a meticulous style of realism, stressing graphic values but also allowing for sophisticated harmonies of line and color, Bryson Shahn succeeded in building a tantalizing poetic universe. Key elements of this cosmology include the mannequin figures based on a wooden studio model and the giant orb she dubbed “The World Egg.” Other memorable figures are the cloaked personage shown gliding along the landscape in Passage, 1978, and major historical figures such as Savonarola and Erasmus, who confront each other, head-to-head, in Encounter, 1975. In the most powerful paintings with mannequins, such as Mannikin In Spring, 1981, Poets In A Landscape, 1982–83, and Epitaph For An Era, 1991, the odd neutrality of the faceless figures is contrasted with boldly animated limbs and, frequently, a palpable sense of inner being. They seem to serve as symbols of the search for personal identity and meaning that painting, at its best, can enhance.

Ronny Cohen