Although its title might lead one to assume that it is a light-hearted subject, "Girl Skipping Rope" is one of Shahn's war paintings, completed in the midst of World War II. While Shahn did not depict any specific event, he conveyed through symbolic images what he described as "the sense of...
Although its title might lead one to assume that it is a light-hearted subject, "Girl Skipping Rope" is one of Shahn's war paintings, completed in the midst of World War II. While Shahn did not depict any specific event, he conveyed through symbolic images what he described as "the sense of emptiness and waste that the war gave me and the sense of the littleness of people trying to live on through the enormity of war." (Ben Shahn, "The Biography of a Painting," Cambridge, Mass.: Fogg Museum, Harvard University, 1956, p. 26). Shahn had joined the Office of War Information in 1942 where he designed posters and pamphlets meant to educate the American public about the gravity of the conflict and the necessity for rationing, for increased production of armaments, and for secrecy. As part of this job, Shahn saw many photographs and newsreels showing the destruction of European cities and received a steady stream of reports detailing the atrocities committed during the war. Yet Shahn chose not to depict the dead or dying in his World War II paintings, but instead to portray the grim results of combat in general. Shahn arrived at his compositions through a somewhat unusual process. "Girl Skipping Rope" is collage-like, made up of elements from several different photographic sources: the girl is derived from a 1937 newspaper image (see Deborah Martin Kao, et al, "Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times," Cambridge and New Haven: Fogg Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2000, p. 159); the building comes from Shahn's own 1935 photograph of an abandoned house in Philadelphia (Fogg Art Museum, P1970.1675); and the boy is from a photograph of New York City which Shahn took sometime between 1932 and 1935 (Fogg Art Museum, P1970.2939). Shahn manipulated the component images to suit his expressive purposes. Rather than the cheerful child pictured in the newspaper clipping, Shahn gave his girl a white, ghostly complexion and made her somewhat older. From his own photo, he utilized the Philadelphia building and the hill behind it, but instead of grass in the foreground, he painted a hard surface with no vegetation. He also added flowered wall paper visible through the shattered windows. The figure of the boy, who is playing with his friends in Shahn's other photograph, is alone in the painting. As he transformed the separate images into the final tempera, Shahn completed at least one drawing: "Drawing for Girl Jumping Rope," 1943 (private collection), which shows the alteration of the girl from happy child to haunted youngster. "Girl Jumping Rope" suggests both the destructiveness and the isolation of war. Shahn painted almost a dozen war paintings. Selden Rodman, one of Shahn's biographers, described the artist's view of the conflict: "war is seen not in terms of action or battle or masses or ideals. It is seen in terms of desolation, homelessness, loneliness, civilian starvation and the individual sufferer." (Selden Rodman, "Portrait of the Artist as an American, Ben Shahn: A Biography with Pictures," New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951, p. 58). Shahn did not shy away from politics and consistently championed the underserved; most often, children and women are the individual sufferers in his war paintings. "Girl Jumping Rope" prefigures "Liberation," 1945 (Museum of Modern Art), perhaps Shahn's best-known war painting, in which children swing around a pole with a ruined building in the background. "Girl Jumping Rope" was included in Shahn's one-man show in 1944 at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York City and in his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947. Halpert had been Shahn's dealer since 1930 when she had first given him a solo show. Stephen and Sybil Stone bought "Girl Jumping Rope" from Halpert in 1956. Stephen Stone, president of Converse Rubber Company in Malden, Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, and Sybil, who worked in Boston area art galleries, were avid collectors of contemporary American art. The Stones were generous benefactors to several New England museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts. "Girl Jumping Rope" was one of nearly fifty works of art given to the Museum by the Stones or their foundation over the years. Janet Comey
Lower right: Ben Shahn
The artist; with Downtown Gallery, 1943; to private collection, 1944; with Downtown Gallery, 1946; to Richard Loeb, New York and Santiago, Chile, by 1947; with Downtown Gallery, Stephen Stone, 1956; to Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation, 1961; to MFA, 1971, gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation.
Gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation
© Estate of Ben Shahn, Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY