Hands, charged with feeling, play a central role in the paintings, drawings, and book illustrations of Ben Shahn (1898-1969). They are (in his hands) a transformable symbol, expressing at turns power, affection, longing, anguish, hope.
But his extraordinary depictions of fingers, thumbs, knuckles, fists - of clasping and grasping, reaching, holding and tenderly touching - are more than symbols. They seem to engage directly with meaning.
Shahn, a Lithuanian-born Jewish artist, came to America at the age of 8 and spent his early working life as a lithographer. He insisted that an artist was a visionary and that the technical and manual aspect of his work was never an end in itself. An artist was far more than a manually dexterous artisan.
Nevertheless, he had strong respect for certain kinds of workmanship.
Musicians, for instance, clearly fascinated him. In his drawings of them, their hands become almost a visual substitute for the issuing music we imagine and remember rather than hear.
And hands, for him, are no less the expressionistic tools of the visual artist who unites (ideally) hand and eye in the process of producing a work of art. At the very root of visual art in Jewish tradition is the letter, and Shahn's interest in letters and alphabets (he designed two) was deep. He found in ancient scripts, inscribed or carved, "a joy of workmanship that no time or weathering can erase."
"We may never know," he said, "who dictated the words, or under what circumstances they were made. But the skill remains there, the elaboration of shapes and rhythms, the understanding that must reside in the workman and in him alone. Small wonder that so many people have attributed the origins of the alphabets to their gods!"