Ben Shahn

Lute and Molecules

1958

Artist
Ben Shahn 1898–1969
Medium
Screenprint and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 689 x 1022 mm
Frame: 775 x 1110 x 60 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1959
Reference
T00314

Not on display

Summary

Lute and Molecules is a large screenprinted and hand painted still life on paper depicting a stringed wooden instrument alongside models of molecular structures. The underlying screenprinted section of the work provides the outlines of these shapes in an intricate graphic design in fine black line. In the top left corner, a ball-and-stick molecule model is shown, comprising a series of filled black circles, representing atoms, linked by thin straight lines, representing chemical bonds. Beneath this appears a small cross-section diagram of a molecule, showing similar circular atoms with swirling outlines. These motifs are partly covered by the lute, which stretches the width of the print. The neck and pegbox of the instrument fill the left of the composition, joining the rectangular soundboard that dominates the right, with its delicately rendered strings, frets, bridge and a sound hole with an ornate grille. The black outlines of the lute and molecules are overlaid with watercolour paint that has been applied in an imprecise manner. A dark blue-grey wash covers a large rectangular section around the molecules, with two of the atoms coloured dark blue and two bright yellow. Dark brown paint roughly overlays the whole image of the lute, except for the sound hole, which is painted a deep blue. The work is inscribed with the artist’s name in the bottom right corner.

Lute and Molecules (alternatively known as Lute and Molecule, No. 1) was made by the American artist Ben Shahn in 1958 and is the darker of two colour versions that he produced. Both were screenprinted using the same graphic design and are based on the gouache painting Lute and Molecules 1958 (private collection). The brown, blue and yellow colours of Lute and Molecule, No. 1 match the original painting, while the second version of the work, known as Lute and Molecule, No. 2, is more sparsely painted, with the base black print largely uncoloured save for several atoms in blue, yellow and orange, giving it a much lighter feel. In 1960 the artist recalled that he made the first version of the print in an edition of twenty-three, all of which are approximately alike in colour (quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.686). However, curator Kenneth Prescott stated that there are at least thirty-five known editions of this first print, in addition to one hundred known editions of Lute and Molecule, No.2 (Prescott 1973, pp.31–2).

Lute and Molecules was inspired by an event that took place in 1956, when Shahn returned to his studio in the Fogg Museum at Harvard University to find that a visitor had left a lute next to a model of a molecule that was on loan to Shahn from a scientist. As the artist recalled in 1960:

I daresay I was somewhat struck by their dissimilarity in use as well as by the similarity between the keys of the lute and the atomic structure of the molecule. All this was, of course, entirely fortuitous and I am sure that nothing of the sort will again take place in my work, for I doubt that I shall again be in an environment where the two objects could conceivably be in one place.
(Shahn to Alley, 24 May 1960, quoted in Alley 1981, p.686.)

Shahn would go on to make several watercolour paintings on the theme, some of which were subsequently used as the basis for print series. Prior to making the work held in the Tate collection, in 1957 Shahn depicted a lute in the gouache painting Lute, I, which was the basis for the screenprint Lute 1957, and that same year he returned to the subject in the paintings Lute #2 and Still Life (both private collections).

From the late 1940s onwards Shahn produced numerous works on the theme of music. Shahn’s Still Music 1948 (Phillips Collection, Washington, DC) shares the structure of lines and dots that is also evident in Lute and Molecules, suggesting that the image of the ball-and-stick molecule model may be intended to evoke a musical score. Shahn’s interest in music also related to his devoutly Jewish upbringing, and towards the end of his life he would often use musical themes to express his renewed interest in religion. The subject of the lute, and particularly the decoration on the sound hole, also recall Shahn’s enthusiasm for Islamic design that he developed while living in North Africa in the late 1920s.

Having pursued an early career in zoology, Shahn turned back to science in the 1950s, as the Soviet Union and United States engaged in a nuclear arms race. In a talk in 1949 Shahn spoke with concern about ‘the great and tragic characteristics of the atomic age’, noting that ‘human values – morality, if you will, have not kept pace with scientific achievements’ (quoted in Frances K. Pohl, Ben Shahn: New Deal Artist in a Cold War Climate, 1947–1954, Austin 1989, p.81). The image of molecules appears frequently in Shahn’s art of this period, with the theme of science and the image of the scientist used to demonstrate his nuclear anxiety.

Further reading
Ben Shahn and James Thrall Soby, Ben Shahn: Graphic Work, London 1957.
Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Ben Shahn, New York 1972.
Kenneth W. Prescott, The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn, New York 1973, reproduced p.31.

Julia Tatiana Bailey
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Catalogue entry

Ben Shahn 1898-1969

T00314 Lute and Molecules 1958

Inscribed 'Ben Shahn' b.r.
Screenprint hand-coloured in watercolour, 27 1/8 x 40 1/4 (69 x 102.5)
Purchased from the artist through the Leicester Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1959
Exh: Graphic Work of Ben Shahn, Leicester Galleries, London, November 1959 (13) as 'Lute and Molecules I'

The artist wrote of this work: '23 copies were made, all are approximately alike in color.

'The juxtaposition of the two objects resulted from the simple fact that both the lute and the model of molecules happened to be in my studio in the Fogg Museum at Harvard; I daresay I was somewhat struck by their dissimilarity in use as well as by the similarity between the keys of the lute and the atomic structure of the molecule. All this was, of course, entirely fortuitous and I am sure that nothing of the sort will again take place in my work, for I doubt that I shall again be in an environment where the two objects could conceivably be in one place' (letter of 24 May 1960).

A watercolour reproduced in J.T. Soby, Ben Shahn: Graphic Work (London 1957), p.72, was the first and less stylised version of this composition: it was made in 1957. Another, somewhat differently-coloured screenprint is reproduced in Art News, LVIII, April 1959, p.13.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.686, reproduced p.686

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