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New Life for Arthur Szyk

Warrior: Szyk fought Hitler with impassioned political art. Image by Historicana

“An artist, especially a Jewish artist, cannot remain neutral in these times. He cannot escape to still lifes, abstractions and experiments.” These words, uttered in 1934, belong to Polish-Jewish illustrator and political caricaturist Arthur Szyk (1894–1951).

Face of Evil: Szyk draws Hitler. Image by Historicana

As one of World War II’s most widely circulated propagandists, he fought the National Socialist regime and the Axis powers with all the venom his pen and brush could muster. Once ubiquitous, Szyk has fallen into near-total obscurity since his death more than half a century ago. Now, he’s experiencing an unexpected rehabilitation.

After successful exhibits of Szyk’s work in Washington, D.C., and Berlin, the artist returns to New York for the first time in more than 30 years. “Arthur Szyk: Illuminated New York” is on view until April 26 at the Broome Street Gallery in SoHo and is the latest contribution to the rediscovery of this once ever-present but now largely forgotten artist. The exhibit offers a chance to reassess Szyk’s legacy by showing his powers as a propagandist, cartoonist, illustrator and illuminator of manuscripts.

Szyk (pronounced “Shick”) in an artist whose work is recognizable, even if his name isn’t. Even in America, where he achieved his greatest measure of success, only a fraction of the true Szyk has been passed down to us, mostly via his intricate illuminated Haggadah and several illustrated books (Hans Christian Andersen’s “Fairy Tales” and Mother Goose’s stories — both of which are still in print). Aside from exhibits organized in the past decade by the Arthur Szyk Society in Burlingame, Calif., Szyk’s name and much of his work have remained in obscurity since his death.

This Night: A page from the Szyk Haggadah. Image by Historicana

Szyk was born in Lodz, then a part of the Russian Empire, to an upper-middle-class family. Though his household was a secular one, Szyk grew up surrounded by the heroic stories of the Bible. His father, the owner of a textile factory, was blinded by an irate worker during 1905’s Lodz insurrection. He supported his son’s desire to be an artist and funded his art education in Paris. While honing his stills at the Académie Julian, the young artist submitted political drawings to papers back in Lodz, the first of which was published when Szyk was 16. During his subsequent studies in Krakow, Szyk developed a political consciousness that was influenced by his teacher, Teodor Axentowicz, the Polish nationalist painter and illustrator. As a contributor to the satirical Polish journal Smeich, Szyk drew on themes of antisemitism, worker abuse and the German militarism. During this time, he also became active in the Jewish intellectual scene. He was on a study trip to Palestine, organized by a Jewish cultural organization, when war broke out in 1914. After serving in World War I on the German Front, Szyk returned to Paris, where he exhibited and established himself primarily as a commercial artist. His highly detailed and ornamented style, reminiscent of medieval miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, attracted many patrons, among them Orientalists and antiquarians.

One striking work from the Paris period is “The Scribe” (1927). In the painting, an old man in medieval garb sits at a desk, writing a Dadaist poem in dense, near-impenetrable German on a parchment scroll, with a modern pen. Out a window behind him is a modernist landscape with a highway and a plane overhead. The image is awash is decoration and detail. The main figure stares directly at the viewer, with deep, pendulous eyes. His purple-and-blue robe is offset by an oriental breastplate and a medallion. Behind him is a brick wall, fat cherubs smoking pipes, a dollar bill, a medieval tapestry, a cubist painting with the name “Picasso” written across it. Like the various objects depicted, the painting itself is a fascinating synthesis of the old and the new. The over-saturation of symbols, along with the collagelike composition of disparate elements, brings to mind surrealism, while the grotesque style is reminiscent both of the Neue Sachlichkeit and the works of Bosch and Bruegel. With his oddball synthesis of ancient techniques and modern themes, Szyk deliberately uses medieval and renaissance styles to comment on the present age.

But it is Szyk’s impassioned political art that looms large. These fierce, persuasive works led Eleanor Roosevelt to call Szyk a “one-man army” against Hitler. In addition to savage caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, Szyk rendered images of Nazi brutality that he hoped would raise awareness of the Holocaust. (A 1941 drawing depicting a heap of Jewish victims is eerily reminiscent of photos that would later emerge from Auschwitz.) The intricate detail Szyk includes in every face brings a heightened sense of immediacy to the tragedy. This same profound attention to details characterizes all of Szyk’s work, drawing us closer and closer, despite our revulsion at what is being depicted.

Intricate: Layers of meaning can be uncovered in Syzk?s work. Image by Historicana

As early as 1933, Szyk caricatured Hitler in a variety of guises: Attila the Hun, a gangster complete with fedora and Tommy gun, and a crazed buffoon with stubble and patched clothing. He also depicted Göring as a Cossack and Goebbels as a skunk. In an undated sketch (probably from 1933), Szyk portrayed Hitler as A pharaoh, anticipating a theme that would become dominant in his work — the situation of the Nazi regime along a historical continuum of antisemitism. In “The Scroll of Esther” (1950), the book of Tanach describing Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews, he depicts Haman wearing a swastika. He represents the wicked son of the Haggadah as a fully assimilated German Jew with Bavarian feather hat, leather boots and gloves, riding whip and Hitler mustache. Another dazzling watercolor, “Wagner” shows the famously antisemitic composer seated at an upright piano. Out of the instrument bursts a grim cornucopia of Nazi head honchos, Valkyries, a skeleton in Prussian military garb, warplanes, tanks and high notes that are literally screaming.

Perhaps Szyk’s best-known work is his lavishly illuminated Haggadah, for which he drew on the rich tradition of ornamented Haggadot that dates from the 13th century and flourished in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Work on the 48 full-color pages occupied him from 1934 to 1940. Originally, he included Nazi symbols in the illustrations to establish a link between the oppression in Egypt and Nazism, but he was urged by his British publisher to paint over them for the final version. The Haggadah includes a dedication to King George VI, which can be read as a cry for help on behalf of the European Jewry: “At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands, shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel.” As in much of his Judaica work, Szyk is interested here in reinterpreting the past to make it relevant to the present. On display in the Broome Street exhibit is the new edition of the Szyk Haggadah, recently published by Irvin Ungar, the leading authority on the artist.

Szyk’s work in Paris and London won him considerable fame, and the artist arrived in America in 1940, amid rumors that the Nazis had put a price on his head. It was in this country that he enjoyed the most prestige and influence. In addition to numerous one-man shows in New York and Philadelphia, his work ran in many large-circulation magazines, including Collier’s, Esquire and Time, and was displayed on U.S. Army bases, in military publications and in public office buildings. He drew commercial advertisements for the war effort, and they appeared in major newspapers, a Manhattan telephone directory and a billboard in Times Square. Esquire reported that his political art was more popular with soldiers than with pinup girls. Szyk was everywhere, and even the intelligentsia took notice. “Just as we turn back to Hogarth and Goya for the living images of their age, so our decedents will turn back to Arthur Szyk for the most graphic history of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini,” Pulitzer Prize winning critic Carl Van Doren wrote of Szyk’s work shortly after the war. “Here is the damning essence of what has happened; here is the piercing summary of what men have thought and felt.”

The sense of moral outrage that inspired his WWII work never left Szyk, and he did not remain silent in the face of perceived injustices in his adoptive countries, Britain and the United States. The same anger that provoked Szyk to attack fascism led him to openly criticize policies of the governments that he supported. Some works that date from his years in England condemn British policy in Palestine, including the White Paper and what he saw as pandering to the Arab League in the interest of oil.

Szyk lauded America’s fight against global fascism and fervently supported the democracy and tolerance of his adoptive country. But he was not blasé or blind to those aspects of America that were less attractive. In addition to his idealized portraits of American presidents and illuminated versions of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, he produced works that attacked segregation and racism in America. A postwar drawing depicts a black war veteran on his knees as two Klansmen wait in the background with rifles. Another drawing ridicules the paranoia of the McCarthy era by suggesting that anyone who had red blood and a heart left of center was a communist. Szyk was himself under investigation from the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, four months before he died of a heart attack, though few details of the investigation are known.

So what accounts for Szyk’s fall into obscurity? Encountering Szyk today, one can postulate several factors. His work was very much of its time, and often bound up with the war effort. Szyk also didn’t live long enough to evolve new periods and styles. Most centrally, perhaps, is the lack of subtlety in much of his work. Like all caricaturists, he works with types and visual shorthand that, for all the intricacy of the drawings, grow tired after a while. But it often seems that Szyk’s imagination was inversely proportional to his sense of nuance. When Szyk found a suitable symbol or metaphor, he stuck with it. He drew endless variations on a few choice themes. Perhaps this would not be so much a problem were it not for the lack of movement in his work. For all their busyness, his drawings and paintings are surprisingly static. His was essentially the art of illustration, and his posthumous reputation was made at a time when the illustrator’s art was held with less esteem than it was in Hogarth’s day. Amid the radical upheavals and challenges that came with art of the late 20th century, Szyk and his archaic language have been largely ignored. His work’s evident combination of stasis and lack of subtlety has made it difficult to appreciate in an age that values kinesis and shades of gray.

Though agitprop looms large in Szyk’s oeuvre, the artist was no mere propagandist. He eschewed the abstract, densely intellectual trends in modern art in favor of making very clear political statements. The heightened realism and the grotesquerie of his style lent themselves equally to his book illustrations and his later agitprop work. When he saw Europe go up in flames around him, he lashed back with all the venom he could muster, creating forceful, persuasive art that was unapologetically representative. Encountering Szyk today, what emerges from behind the canvas is a master painter and draftsman with unflagging courage, conviction and commitment.

Ungar, who acts as curator of the Arthur Szyk Society, feels it is especially meaningful that Szyk is back in New York with the Broome Street Gallery show. “Almost all of his political art was created by Szyk in New York,” Ungar said. The show features 50 original drawings and paintings, some of which have never before been displayed. “These are powerful works that have never been exhibited before,” Ungar said, “and I’ve brought them to New York.”

Arthur Szyk; Illuminated New York is on view at the Broome Street Gallery through April 26.

A.J. Goldmann is a journalist based in Berlin. He has written about arts and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, Opera News magazine, Gramophone magazine and, among other publications.

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