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.
Michelle Anne Schingler
Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the publisher will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.