This week, in honor of the Jewish High Holidays, and the beginning of the year 5783, the book we have chosen is Ben Shahn’s The Alphabet of Creation. Here, Shahn retells and illustrates a legend from the Sefer Ha-Zohar, a mystical text written in medieval Spain, that relates how each letter of the Hebrew alphabet vied to be the one through which God creates the world. Each letter presents an argument, only to be rejected for one reason or another. Only Aleph does not argue her case and is thus rewarded with a place of primacy.
The book was originally published in 1954. The copy shown here is a facsimile published in 1982, which is part of the MTSU Art and Design Historical and Teaching Collections.
The cover illustration, with its arrangement of Hebrew letters, became an important image for Shahn, who often used it as a kind of printer’s mark, above his signature.
Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania in 1898. As a boy, he immigrated with his family to New York City. He trained as a graphic designer and printmaker and became an important figure of the American Social Realism movement. His art often addressed civil rights, politics, and social concerns. As a graphic designer, he illustrated many book and was fascinated with the relationship between words and images. His ideas about art, design, and society were documented in his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, which he gave at Harvard. They were published as The Shape of Content by Harvard University Press in 1957.
For more information on Shahn’s life and work, see his page at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Web site.
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