Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 11, 2002|Volume 31, Number 6














Artist Ben Shahn used newspaper photos of Italian immigrants and anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as the basis of his paintings about their infamous murder trial, which sparked widespread protest due to the atmosphere of prejudice that surrounded the proceedings.

Show marks 75th year of Sacco and Vanzetti trial

The famed trial of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti -- called "the most politically charged murder case in the history of American jurisprudence" -- will be brought to visual life in a new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery.

"Justice on Trial: Ben Shahn's Case for Sacco and Vanzetti" is being offered in conjunction with a number of community discussions and performances in New Haven marking the 75th anniversary of the controversial case, which still informs current debates on capital punishment, immigration policies, and ethnic and racial intolerance.

Opening on Tuesday, Oct. 15, the exhibit's highlights include two major paintings, both titled "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti," and 10 related gouaches and a print by Ben Shahn, an immigrant artist who dedicated part of his career to defending and honoring Sacco and Vanzetti through his art. Also on display will be archival materials, including contemporary political pamphlets, photographs, newsreels and newspaper accounts that place Shahn's work in context and give viewers further insight into the issues surrounding the trial and sentencing.

The show, which runs through Dec. 29, was organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, associate curator of American paintings and sculpture, with the assistance of Amy Kurtz Lansing, the Marcia Brady Tucker Curatorial Intern.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case unfolded shortly after the end of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and World War I, during the period of intense xenophobia and anti-radical paranoia known as the "Red Scare." On May 5, 1920, police in Brockton, Massachusetts, arrested Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, charging them with being "suspicious characters." Each man carried a loaded handgun, and, under questioning, denied having anarchist beliefs. In fact, both were avowed anarchists and had been involved in labor strikes, political agitation and anti-war propaganda. The authorities were seeking a gang -- possibly with anarchist ties -- responsible for the unsuccessful hold-up of a shoe factory payroll in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on Dec. 24, 1919, as well as the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920. Vanzetti was charged and found guilty in the Bridgewater case. Both Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted on Sept. 11, 1920, for the more serious South Braintree crime.

Their trial began on May 31, 1921, in an atmosphere of prejudice against immigrants -- particularly Italians -- and radicals. Six weeks later, on July 14, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted. Numerous motions for a new trial were denied. Public outrage forced Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller to establish a committee to review allegations of procedural injustices and bigotry on the part of the presiding judge. The committee members declared that justice had been done, and Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison just after midnight on Aug. 23, 1927. Their executions ignited unprecedented mass demonstrations worldwide.

Shahn, the son of Jewish immigrants living in New York, followed the case during his travels to North Africa and Europe. He also participated in demonstrations in Boston. Shahn once said of his artistic interest in the case: "Ever since I could remember I'd wished I'd been lucky enough to be alive at a great time -- when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion. And suddenly I realized I was. Here I was living through another crucifixion. Here was something to paint!"

Shahn created a series of gouaches (opaque watercolors) and tempera paintings in 1931 and 1932. He based his visual narrative on photographs from newspapers and political pamphlets, gathered over many months. Selections of these are included in the exhibition.

According to Frank. "At a time when fear of immigrants and radicals dehumanized Sacco and Vanzetti, Shahn's portrayals of the defendants forced people to see them as he did, as martyred men." His work on his Sacco and Vanzetti series also shaped his life-long commitment to addressing themes of injustice and marked a turning point in the development of social realism in the United States, she adds.

Several programs are being offered in conjunction with the exhibit. On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Amy Kurtz Lansing will present an Art à la Carte talk at 12:20 p.m. on the topic "Ben Shahn, Newspapers and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti." The following day at 5:30 p.m., Laura Katzman, associate professor of art at Randolph Macon Woman's College and a senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hamburg in Germany, will lecture on "Mechanical Vision: Photography and Mass Media in Ben Shahn's Sacco and Vanzetti Series." Her lecture is also part of a museum-wide celebration at the Yale University Art Gallery that day (see related story).

November events include talks by attorneys, a discussion of how the Sacco and Vanzetti case affected the Italian-American community and the showing of films about the notorious case. More information on these offerings will appear in future issues of the Yale Bulletin & Calendar.

The Yale Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays), and Sunday, 1-6 p.m. Admission is free. There is an entrance for people using wheelchairs at 201 York St., with an unmetered parking space nearby. For information on access, call (203) 432-0606. For general information, call (203) 432-0600 or visit the gallery's website at www.yale.edu/artgallery.


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