If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:09

A mine disaster and those left behind: Ben Shahn's Miner's Wives

Video transcript

[Music] an hour ago way down in this tunnel of cold gas caught fire from somebody's lamp [Music] we're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in painting storage and we've pulled out a rack with a large painting by Ben Sean and it depicts a mine disaster that killed 111 miners it's showing the aftermath of this horrible disaster through a doorway we see two men in suits with slightly stooped shoulders walking back towards the mine building but in the foreground we have a woman her hands clasped her head covered looking with a bleak look on her face like what is to be done and it seems clear that the two figures have just delivered the news that her husband a miner was killed in this tragedy so she's now a widow and to the left side of the painting we see two smaller figures an older woman and a child presumably her child and perhaps her mother but this woman on the right the largest figure is still by herself those eyes have no pupils we see instead these large black circles and there's an emphasis on the inner corners of the eye which makes it seem as if she's been up all night waiting forward the eyes are so dark and while they're pointing straight ahead it's as though she were gazing into space lost in her own thoughts but because she looks at us as a viewer standing before this painting I feel implicated in this tragedy in her suffering the figures are walking away she's been left alone and yet the older woman and the child are now her responsibility the artist Ben Sean is often referred to as a social realist an American artist interested in revealing social problems of his own era the United States has a long history of confronting issues of Industrial Safety there is this history of tragedy being followed by reform well inspired by this mining disaster he's trying to touch upon this bigger social issue by focusing on the personal impact that the lack of cite the lack of mind regulation the loss of life is having on what feels like a very real individual he's not showing the mind explosion it's the impact what's left after that disaster that's also signified by the clothes that are hanging in the upper left-hand corner these miners would be coming from the mines covered with coal dust hang up their clothes and put on clean clothes so that that mine dust wouldn't be polluting their homes ironically it is that buildup of coal dust within the mind that wasn't addressed properly that led to the catastrophe that hanging clothing signifies both the absence of the miner who's been killed and the cause of the explosion itself look at the way that the arse has handled this painting the brick wall that takes up 2/3 of the surface and then the floor are so flat they're absolutely abstract but Shaun has decided to render every single brick individually like hand making bricks or hand setting bricks into a wall it's a kind of labor and there's also a real abstraction to the human figures this is not naturalistic painting even though it is figurative it's a very flat plane of modulated color which is then turned into the body of the woman or suggest the fabric of her clothing by these very inky dark heavy lines this woman is monumental she's almost life-size where the older woman and the child are at a medium scale and then the two male figures are quite tiny in comparison emphasizing a sense of isolation reports had been written repeatedly and recently about the dangers in this mind but the company that was in control of the mine chose not to address them presumably because it was too expensive what we're seeing here is the very real human cost of industrialization made handable through the emotions of this woman's face and her hands which are so emotional on the one hand but so restrained she's not wailing she's not sobbing it's a contained anguish and I see that in her eyes but also in the firmness with which her mouth is set it's as if she had anticipated this danger all her life and here her greatest fear has come to pass which is I think a condition that people associated with minds had to live with it was Duras work and people went into this business knowing that there was some risk this is a painting that was made in 1948 and yet we're still grappling with these same issues finding the right balance between efficiency cost and safety and this painting reminds us of the impact on human life when we get it wrong a lot of these men dear sisters [Music]