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Still Music

Ben Shahn ( 1948 )

Collection item 1731
  • Period Twentieth-Century
  • Materials Casein tempera on canvas mounted on plywood panel
  • Object Number 1731
  • Dimensions 48 x 83 1/2 in.; 121.92 x 212.09 cm.
  • Credit Line Acquired 1949; Art © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

A poetic conjuring of an unseen presence, Still Music, painted in 1948, is reminiscent of Paul Klee’s art, which Shahn admired. The angular, brittle lines recall Klee’s automatist drawings as do the musical theme and emphasis on the subject’s essence. Shahn recognized the relationship between Klee’s intent and his own: “More than anyone else he reaffirms an old heresy of my own—that form is merely the shape taken by content. Where content is highly subjective and highly personal new forms will emerge.”

The viewer is meant to ponder why no performers are shown. Some interpretations emphasize the painting’s innate musical qualities. Its rhythmical deployment of straight lines, flat shapes, and dots is reminiscent of musical notation. The patchy brushstrokes covering the picture surface glow faintly with prismatic color, echoing, perhaps, the sounds of earlier performances. Duncan Phillips believed that the work revealed the “vibrations of music one senses during the intermission in a concert.” Shahn felt “the emotion conveyed by great symphonic music happens to be expressed in semi-mathematical acoustical intervals and this cannot be transposed in terms of ninety portraits or caricatures of performers.” On the other hand, economic causes might explain the musicians’ absence. Shahn jokingly suggested the reason for the empty seats by calling the work “Local 802 on Strike!” A later writer saw the work as “an appropriate artistic comment…related to financial struggles affecting musical education.”