Contrary to the title of the exhibit, Yale University Art Gallery’s newest show has already convicted the American judicial system of injustice with every angry brushstroke. “Justice on Trial,” which opened Oct. 15, is an exhibit of Ben Shahn paintings detailing the controversial 1927 trial and executions of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti that caused a scandal in America and abroad at the height of the Red Scare. The two were convicted of robbery and murder in a trial many — including Shahn — felt was marked by prejudice against political radicals and immigrants.
Shahn followed the details of the trial closely, and based his paintings on authentic photos from newspapers and other sources, all of which are displayed with his works in the exhibit. Indeed, the New York showing of this series in 1932 helped establish him as an artist and marked a crucial moment for American social realism in art.
Shahn views Sacco and Vanzetti as martyrs to an unjust system, and this mentality is strongly reflected in his paintings through his use of figure distortion and color variation. He portrays the defendants as serene and dignified in the face of their impending deaths, towering over the diminutive, sallow figures of government officials like Judge Webster Thayer and Governor Alvan Fuller.
The most interesting aspect of the exhibit is Shahn’s adaptation of newspaper photos into large paintings, cropped and slightly adapted to add emotion to the previously stark scenes, including one powerful group portrait, “Nicola Sacco, His Wife, and Their Son, Dante,” taken from a Sacco family photograph. Another dominant work, “The P assion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” is a collage highlighting three separate episodes in the trial. Shahn uses the title, composition, and even the medium — egg tempera — to connect Sacco and Vanzetti to the crucified Christ in a painting evocative of the three-paneled religious triptychs of the Italian Renaissance. Its sheer size, seven feet by four feet, and bright color draw the viewers’ attention as it portrays, from left to right, Vanzetti leading a futile protest, Sacco and Vanzetti handcuffed together, and government officials standing in mock mourning over their open caskets.
“Justice on Trial” was organized at Yale by Robin Frank Jaffee, associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture. Its effect is stark and solemn, adding to the strength of Shahn’s message. The thirteen paintings are perfectly and evenly spaced on harsh white walls in chronological order. Printed above the line of paintings in blood red letters are passionate quotes from people involved in the trial, including Sacco’s farewell to his young son and Judge Thayer’s vindictive remarks about the defendants, in which he refers to the two as “anarchistic bastards.”
Finally, the Gallery provides — in authentic newspaper form — reprinted articles from the time of the trial and a television playing clips from contemporary news reels.
Shahn has made Sacco and Vanzetti into martyrs who were executed by an unfair and biased judicial system. The museum makes no attempt to hide this bias, but rather highlights it, celebrating the exhibit as a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the trial. With that in mind, “Justice on Trial” offers an enlightening snapshot of a seminal collision between history and art.