Reviews

Humanism in Painting: Remembering the Art of Symeon Shimin

Sam Ben-Meir​

As New York’s Whitney Museum exhibits the work of the great Mexican muralists – Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros – this is a moment to revisit and reflect on the work of Russian-born artist, Symeon Shimin. During his life, Shimin illustrated over 50 children’s books, including two that he authored himself; his masterpiece, however – influenced in part by ‘Los Tres Grandes’ – was the mural painting, “Contemporary Justice and the Child” (1936), located on the third floor of the Department of Justice, where it still stands today. 

In 2019, Mercury Press International published The Art of Symeon Shimin, an exceptionally fine compilation of his work, featuring not only dozens of gorgeous, high-resolution color plates, but a short autobiography by the artist, as well as essays by noted art journalists Josef Woodard and Charles Donelan. Edited and curated by the artist’s daughter, Tonia Shimin, this book was more than 30 years in the making, and represents the first complete collection and overview of Shimin’s fine art.

While he enjoyed a long and successful career as an illustrator and commercial artist for Hollywood films (including the original, iconic poster for Gone With the Wind), Shimin never quite received the recognition that his work truly merited. Undoubtedly, this was largely due to the fact that Shimin was fundamentally a figurative and representational painter working at a time when various forms of modernism and avant-garde art, such as abstract expressionism, were ascending and gaining influence.  

The book provides exquisite reproductions of over 70 paintings, including a detailed look at the gestation and development of “Contemporary Justice and the Child.” Commissioned by the Public Works Art Project, Shimin understood that this was, as he put it, “not a slight matter” – it was the artist’s “moment of truth,” as Donelan observes, and he would choose his subject both “carefully and wisely.” Having travelled to Mexico in the 1930s, and soaked up the Mexican Mural Renaissance, Shimin was committed to seeing his work serve the cause of social justice, not only as a condemnation of child labor, but as a meditation on racial and gender equality, the social pursuit of knowledge and science, and much else besides.  

 

Shimin arrived with his family at Ellis Island in 1912, when he was ten-years old; and growing up in Brooklyn, he learned first-hand what it meant to be exploited at an early age, delivering groceries from five in the morning until six in the evening, for three dollars a week. He sought and found refuge in music, and originally was determined to become a musician. While music would remain for Shimin a life-long passion, that ambition was quickly quashed by his parents, and his uncle, who was himself a “disillusioned composer.” It was not long after this that he discovered his gift for drawing “with fidelity to reality” – and “as if by some mystery it was revealed to me that I am an artist.” 

Shimin’s experiences as a child would stay with him and inform his masterpiece, which is, on the left-hand side, about the hardship and injustice endured by countless children subjected to desperate poverty, hunger, and the soul-sapping labor of the factory. A large group of impoverished children are gathered together, drained of color, looking directly at the viewer with mixed expressions of sadness, anger, worry and hopelessness. Above them a large factory stretches endlessly into the distance, topped by three smokestacks that spew their sooty fumes into the darkening sky. In the lower left corner, a tight crawl space is occupied by two young boys, ragged, weary, and half-starved. 

The centerpiece and heart of the mural is a young woman, in front of whom stands a wide-eyed boy, presumably her son, whose hands she gently holds in her own. Both figures face the viewer, as if she is offering him to us, to the world; as if she is saying, “Here he is, take him, care for him, and he will do great things.” On the right-hand side we see what some of those things are – the creative, scientific, and athletic pursuits of young men and women, black and white, working and thinking intently together, or engaged in the healthy competition of sport.  

  

The expressivity of hands were crucially important for Shimin – and they constitute a motif running through much of his work, including his great mural. At the bottom center, a large pair of hands are not merely part of the foreground, but actually jut out, almost as if they are part of the viewer’s space, or the hands of the artist himself. One holds a drafting triangle, and the other a compass; and both are oriented towards the right, the hopeful and colorful side of Shimin’s multi-layered mural, hovering above the heads of a young man and woman who study an architectural blueprint. 

Shimin was able to convey the wide array of human emotion through the hands no less than through the face of his subjects. In “Lovers” (1980), for example, the faces are almost entirely hidden, but all four hands are visible, and together they manage to carry the nearly monochrome painting and convey all the tenderness, gentleness and warmth of the man and woman. In the extraordinarily powerful “Woman with Hands at Chest” (1973-76), the two clenched fists that the subject brings together above her breast seem to reflect both the grief and determination, the sadness and strength that we find in her striking profile.  

Hands figure prominently also in “The Pack” (1959), a painting which is otherwise unique in Shimin’s oeuvre. A profound meditation on violence which brings to mind Hobbes’ assertion that ‘man is a wolf to man’, “The Pack” arose out of the artist’s confrontation with a street gang “that left him injured and traumatized.” In Shimin’s blood red painting, which was shown at the Whitney Museum’s 1959 Annual Exhibition of American Art, the entangled figures appear to be metamorphosizing into hyenas and jackals. At the bottom, an arm lies outstretched on the ground, the palm facing upward, a victim presumably of street violence who now lies surrounded by the pack like a fresh kill.  

         

Symeon Shimin’s art was chiefly concerned with using the human form to express the inner life of the individual, and the weight of existence that each of us carries. Through his portraiture, through his careful observation and representation of the human figure, he was able to find and express the intrinsic value of the human person as such. His work is imbued with a deep and abiding sympathy for the humanity of his subjects, the need we have for each other, for understanding and being understood, with all the difficulty and riskiness that this implies. Shimin always used live models because, he said, “I believe the individual characters to be more meaningful.” That unflagging devotion to the human individual, to the inherent value and dignity of the individual human being is his lasting legacy; and as long as we seek to understand and express the value and significance of human experience as such, there will be a place for artists such as Shimin.   

A loving survey of an artist’s varied career.

BOOK Cover.jpg

The Art of Symeon Shimin - Kirkus Review 2020
Edited by Tonia Shimin - Release Date: Nov. 1, 2019

Editor Tonia Shimin assembles essays and images that span the rich career of her late father, the painter Symeon Shimin.

The book’s opening section is a brief autobiographical essay that Symeon Shimin wrote before his death in 1984. In it, he spends little time on the subject of painting, focusing instead on his family life. He was born in Astrakhan, Russia, in 1902 and wanted to be a musician as a child; he idolized his uncle Eli, who was a composer. In 1912, the family moved to New York City. As he pursued his art, representational drawing came to him easily, and his first studies were on paper bags from his father’s new delicatessen. The second essay, by critic Josef Woodard, provides a fine portrait of Shimin’s artistic life and takes time to appreciate the artist’s illustrations for movie posters and children’s books. But to Woodard, these finely executed projects prevented Shimin from pursuing more worthwhile works like his Contemporary Justice and the Child, “a landmark mural” in the U.S. Department of Justice building. In the final essay, arts journalist Charles Donelan fastidiously moves through Shimin’s oeuvre, presenting a notion of the artist as a “passionate observer” and “humanist” whose representational paintings were underappreciated when abstract works dominated art markets. Together, the three essays achieve an edifying balance with Shimin’s intimate reflection, Woodard’s steady survey, and Donelan’s academic appreciation. The rest of the book consists of reproductions, ably arranged to showcase Shimin's virtuosity and beautifully highlight his career-spanning fascination with the human form. The reprints of studies for Contemporary Justice are a highlight, revealing the minute strokes of brilliance that contributed to a coherent whole. A glowing reprint of Shimin’s later painting The Pack shows the artist’s knack for chaotic ensemble, as does Discussion Group (I), reprinted across two facing pages. In her acknowledgments, Tonia Shimin says that she intended the book as a “tribute to the work of my father”; it is, and it also underscores the skills of its editor.

A loving survey of an artist’s varied career.

- Kirkus Reviews

Midwest Book Review

Midwest Book Review logo.png

"This coffee-table style volume (9.6 x 0.7 x 11.7 inches) is an impressively informative presentation that clearly and effectively showcases the life and work of one of the 20th Century's most gifted artists -- and should be considered an essential and core addition to personal, professional, community, college, and university fine arts collections."  

 

Midwest Book Review

The Art of Symeon Shimin - Review by Book Excellence

 

Complete with detailed artwork and powerful photographs, The Art of Symeon Shimin offers poignant insight into the life and mind of Symeon, an artist whose life story spans multiple continents. Born in Russia, he moved to New York as a child, where he discovered his artistic talent. Symeon’s fascinating life and surreal talent are shown in high quality images that provoke raw emotions and demonstrate his knack for exploring the human condition in a way that is both intriguing and insightful. He is known for exploring themes of poverty and violence, as well as more positive aspects of life, such as music and movement. Possessed of a generous soul, Mr. Shimin bares his heart in an autobiographical account of childhood follies, interactions with family members and notable friends, chance meetings with strangers, and many notable incidents that shaped his personality into a conscientious individual capable of seeing the world from its many complex angles. These personal tales have been thoughtfully compiled by his daughter after his death. Overall, The Art of Symeon Shimin beautifully showcases the life and work of one of the 20th Century's most gifted artists. It is at once both a portrayal of a life and a statement of the impact one man’s art can have on the lives of others.

US Review of Books by Tracy Kelly 

RECOMMENDED by the US Review of Books

"'I had to get the best out of myself,' he revealed late in his life, 'a characteristic I noticed throughout my whole life.'" 

Tonia Shimin, daughter of artist Symeon Shimin, takes readers on a journey through her father's life and legacy, focusing on his passion for social justice. Born amid the diversity of Astrakhan, Russia, Shimin first dreamed of a life as a musician—a dream discouraged by his composer uncle. But soon, at the tender age of twelve, Shimin discovered his life-changing gift for capturing the human experience through visual art. Though his family lived in poverty after they emigrated to the United States, Shimin dedicated himself to his craft, sketching on paper bags and exploring art through books and museums. Vowing to become a noted artist, Shimin realized his vision, creating portraiture art that captured the imagination from Hollywood screens to children's books to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Following some introductory essays, the book embarks on a showcase of Shimin's work, from his early sketches and paintings to his vivid and haunting later works. Special attention is given to his most famous masterpiece, Contemporary Justice and The Child, a critically acclaimed and award-winning mural still displayed at the U.S. Department of Justice Building eighty-one years after its completion. The book features not only a stunning image of the mural itself but also study sketches and up-close photos of the mural's detail, immersing the reader in the realism of this timeless creation. The work concludes with a stunning image of Two Hands Reaching, seeming to embody the enduring power of both the artist and his art to uplift mankind. From cover to cover, Shimin's work envelopes readers in images of hope and humanity, many of which still reveal with poignant realism the lives of the vulnerable among us.

Clarion Review by Michelle Anne Schingler 

Clarion Rating: 5 out of 5

The Art of Symeon Shimin introduces and contextualizes the paintings of a great twentieth-century artist.

A stunning introduction to the work of a sensitive, accomplished, and underlauded artist, The Art of Symeon Shimin includes highlights from Shimin’s collection alongside three essays that contextualize his work.

Shimin was born in Russia in 1902, into a family of artists and aesthetes (his uncle was a musician; his mother was an accomplished milliner; his father sold art and antiques). Early on, he dreamed of being a musician himself, though his hopes were quashed by his uncle, who was embittered by his own struggles. His family emigrated to the US, where he folded into art at the age of twelve. He exaggerated his age to get into art school at sixteen, and began achieving success in his twenties.

Though Shimin’s name isn’t often mentioned among lists of twentieth century artistic greats, many are nonetheless familiar with his commercial work without realizing it, including the original Gone with the Wind poster, which he came to regret; a Public Works Arts Project mural, Contemporary Justice and the Child, that was commissioned for, and still hangs in, the Justice Department; and illustrations in more than fifty picture books, including Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert. Playing with form and style, his pieces also draw on his love of music, with “organizing qualities of rhythm, color, form and improvisation.”

 

Two essays suggest that Shimin’s artistic career may have been stymied by his commissioned projects, and by the fact that he was admittedly disinterested in “fashionable things.” The works most representative of his oeuvre are those that he drew and painted because he was compelled to. These often feature human figures, faces, and hands. He treated “art as a form of citizenship,” elevating people and emotions that were ignored by other artists of his era. His pieces are sobering in their humanity, placing keen, empathetic focus on blazing eyes and vibrant, searching expressions. This is true both of his famed mural, and in his portraits of Black Americans, for which he took some heat: “I have followed a direction in my work of reaching to people who are in need, who have been pained.” He dreamed of, but did not complete, “a series of paintings on the theme of liberation.”

Among the diverse and involving pieces reproduced here are paintings like The Pack, a surrealistic narrative work that depicts a troubling incident from when Shimin was in his fifties; Old Woman with Cane, a hazy, brown tone piece whose subject peers out at her observers with piercing eyes; Portrait of Dinah, whose lithe subject takes a wary look over her shoulder; and Toby, a portrait of the artist’s daughter, her pained face cupped with love and captured in washes of green and grey. Each image is both vulnerable and astute, illuminating guarded emotions with care and empathy. The book becomes the gallery showing that Shimin was denied––one worthy of awe and attention.

 

The Art of Symeon Shimin does a masterful job of introducing and contextualizing the paintings and drawings of a great twentieth-century artist.

The Art of Symeon Shimin
Edited and curated by Tonia Shimin
Mercury Press International, 156 pages, (hardcover) $40, 978-0999034224
(Reviewed:June 2022)

This lovingly produced hardcover book collects the artwork of the eponymous painter, illustrator,
and writer, along with essays about the artist and his work.
Symeon Shimin, a Russian Jew who moved to America in 1912 at age ten, had a long,
successful career in a variety of art-related fields. Along with creating a prominent painting for
the Public Works Art Project, he won awards for illustrating children’s books and created the
original poster for the film Gone with the Wind.
Despite the variety of his work—or perhaps because of it—Shimin has never garnered the
attention some insist he deserves. This book seeks to remedy that, with two essays by art
journalists and a six-page autobiographical essay by Shimin himself, accompanied by
photographs of the author and his work. Also included are a chronology; list of awards,
exhibitions, and collections, and other features that provide invaluable context for understanding
Shimin’s career and motivations.
Ultimately, an art book stands on the quality of the art it reproduces, and this one is a treasure
trove. The book’s large size (9.5 x 11.5 inches) and excellent full-color printing successfully
convey memorable, affecting images; many are inaccessible to the public elsewhere, as
numerous pieces, according to the art’s captions, are held in private collections.
The Art Deco style is evident in Shimin’s stunning 1929 Vanity Fair cover, but he preferred a
kind of realism that fell in and out of favor during his career. His portraits, marked by a focus on
the hands to reveal his subjects’ personalities and emotional states, are unique and distinctive.
Shimin often portrayed the downtrodden and dedicated himself so fully to realizing his vision for
his mural Contemporary Justice and the Child that he continued perfecting it for two years after
it had been delivered and displayed.
Like Shimin’s art, this book is a passionate production—one that hopefully will deliver Shimin’s
accomplished images to a wide audience of art lovers.

logo.jpg