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An American in Venice : Ben Shahn and United States foreign policy at the XXVIIth Venice Biennale, or, Portrait of the artist as an American liberal Pohl, Frances K.


In 1954 the Museum of Modern Art, as the new proprietor of the American pavilion in Venice, selected only two artists to represent American painting at the twenty-seventh Venice Biennale—-Willem de Kooning and Ben Shahn. At first glance, this appears to be a somewhat incongruous coupling. A closer examination, though, reveals that each of these artists represented part of a larger American cultural propaganda campaign aimed at improving the image of America throughout the world. The development of this campaign paralleled, and was intimately bound up with, that of the Cold War. As the major international showcase for contemporary art, the Venice Biennale assumed an important position in America's overall cultural foreign policy. The works exhibited there represented not only individual talent but also national ideologies and cultural achievements. In retrospect, the inclusion of de Kooning in the 1954 Biennale can be explained by his reputation in America at that time as one of the avant-garde of the American art scene. Various scholars have also shown how his abstract style embodied an image of America as a land of freedom, aggressive individualism, and innovation, an image that was valuable as a foil to the purportedly oppressive nature of life in Russia. While Ben Shahn was, admittedly, a recognized modern American artist in 1954* he was neither a member of the artistic avant-garde nor a representative of aggressive individualism. But he was a representative of certain other aspects of American liberal democracy—humanism, free speech, anti-communism, and anti-fascism—-that were able to improve America's image in Europe in 1954 much more effectively than de Kooning's aggression. Shahn's success in Italy in particular was the result of certain elements within the paintings included in the Biennale and within his own personal beliefs. While much has been written concerning the role of abstract expressionism in America and abroad during the Cold War, no similar study has been devoted to the work of Ben Shahn. In attempting to reveal the implications of and reasons for Shahn*s appearance at the 1954 Venice Biennale, this paper will investigate Shahn's reputation and his work in relation to American foreign policy concerns in Europe, and particularly in Italy, in the early 1950s. The role of private institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art, and of the Venice Biennale in American foreign policy will be investigated, as well as the failure of de Kooning's art to meet with the same success: as that of Shahn's art. Finally, an examination of the promotional literature for and press reaction to the exhibition of Shahn's work, and of two of the paintings included in this exhibition--Liberation and The Red Stairway—will show how Shahn was able to convince the Italian public that not only was he a great artist, but a great American as well.

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