Ben Shahn delights in all 12 days
Just before Christmas 1947, the Jewish-American artist Ben Shahn heard his 11-year-old daughter sing a carol. Every verse ended "...a partridge in a pear tree." That's what he thought it must be called - though most people know it as "The Twelve Days of Christmas." He asked her to write it out for him. Then, according to his wife's account in her massive book on the artist, he "spent 17 hours ... executing the pictures and hand-lettering the text for the first of his small books of carols...."
The slim book was privately printed in 1948. Then by Curt Valentine in 1949. The Museum of Modern Art in New York published a revised edition in 1951. "A Partridge in a Pear Tree" kicked off a train of Shahn books and signaled his return, after a long time, to a fascination with lettering and alphabets.
His 12 illustrations, each on a right-hand page opposite text in an original, slightly archaic script, are vigorous black-and-white brush drawings. They have a folk-art directness in perfect tune with what must have attracted Shahn to this song. Like other secular songs of ancient tradition popularly sung during the Christmas festive season, "The Twelve Days" is not about the central Christian meaning of Christmas. Efforts to find coded non-secular meanings in it are surely apocryphal.
It is a kind of nonsense love song. Probably its logical illogicality appealed to the slightly surreal side of Shahn's vision. That and the storytelling aspect of an accumulative song that is a succession of pictures. (Incidentally, "Collie birds" - blackbirds - is authentic. Not "calling" birds.)
Shahn's wife emphasizes his having been "a teller of visual tales." Myth was a mainspring of his art, and so was music. He also said he felt that art and literature should never be divorced. All these elements, in a simple and amusing form, come together in Shahn's book.
Much of Shahn's work expresses a heartfelt identification with suffering humanity. But a satirical quality is never far away, and humor is generally present. His little book about an enigmatic little love song with absurd refrains is a celebration of season. And of a childlike sense of fun.