Saturday, September 10, 2016

Holding the World Together: portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld by Ben Shahn

Ben Shahi's portrait [of Hammarskjöld inhabits a different world. It is not tied to time, its themes are suffering and resistance. Drawing on his direct familiarity with Hammarskjöld and on characteristic photographs, particularly of Hammarskjöld cradling his chin as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev in the General Assembly, Shahn chose to create what he called "a portrait about, rather than of a man." He wrote to Carl Nordenfalk about his vision for the painting at a time when Swedish critics were saying, correctly, that the portrait was not a good likeness. "I did not like the notion of a conventional portrait", he wrote.
"That seemed to me a commonplace. I wanted to express Hammarskjöld's loneliness and isolation, his need actually, for such remoteness in space that he might be able to carry through, as he did, the powerful resolution to be just. His unaffiliated kind of justice, it seems to me, held the world together through many crises that might have deteriorated into world conflicts. I have a truly profound feeling for this man, and I hope it will be felt in the painting. I must mention, too, the threat that hung over him as it hung over the world, and does still."
The calligraphy on the table in front of the figure of Hammarskjöld records his words in reply to Khrushchev's demand for his resignation -- "I shall remain at my post ... " The chaotic swirl above and behind, with the sorrowful face of a prophet just visible in it, reflects the nuclear catastrophe that Hammarskjöld had given his all to prevent. The face of Hammarskjöld is darkly thoughtful, compositionally and emotionally midway between the firm courage of the written text and the chaos behind him. In this harsh context, the compressed image of sky and bridge on the right (the bridge combines features of two East River crossings) gives a welcome suggestion of movement and, as Shahn wrote, some small promise of spaciousness. This is a difficult work. It isn't easily likable. But as Nordenfalk wrote, "It will have something to tell future generations about what our life was like ..."

- from Hammarskjöld: A Life, by Roger Lipsey, pages 602-603


  1. I love Shan's work; he captured the brooding nature of Hammarskjold, which I recall from Markings. And Lipsey is a good writer about art and its depths. I'm particularly drawn to the composition--forms and colors and the text in the lower left. Poignant work of art at this time in the life of the world; how can the world be held together rather than we/they?

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, James. They help me to see this portrait better.


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