For the past several weeks, a second floor gallery at the New-York Historical Society has become what the French would call a boîte à bijoux, a jewel box overflowing with concentrated gem-like images of Jewish heroes and Nazi monsters created by the Polish-Jewish illustrator Arthur Szyk (pronounced Shik).
Most of Szyk’s images were made for reproduction in books, magazines, and newspapers. To see the originals, many of which are surprisingly small opaque watercolors (or gouaches) is to be dazzled by the painter’s technique and the fact that he evidently worked without a magnifying glass.
Szyk (1894-1951) is a singular figure in 20th-century art—at once a remarkable craftsman, a political activist, a successful commercial artist, a ferocious cartoonist, and the inventor of a style closer to medieval illuminated manuscripts than any sort of contemporary expression. He was also an unabashed propagandist with a taste for patriotic pomp and sturdy muskeljuden. All dimensions can be found in Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art at the Historical Society through Jan. 21, 2018.
Although he is best known now for his illuminated Haggadah, produced during the late 1930s, Szyk was even more celebrated during the period of WWII. Then, close to ubiquitous with his work regularly featured in national magazines, he was America’s most dogged, and perhaps most prominent, anti-fascist artist.
As befits so partisan a figure, Szyk’s current visibility is due in large measure to the enthusiasm of Irvin Unger, a former rabbi and antiquarian bookseller who not only spent years collecting Szyk material but was instrumental in organizing Soldier in Art as well as other exhibitions, including a major show of Szyk’s political work nine years ago at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
Szyk’s politics were as boldly defined as his gouaches. He was simultaneously a Polish nationalist, a militant Zionist, and an American patriot. He opposed the Soviet Union during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20 and again with the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, then embraced the Soviets after the 1941 German invasion (switching his allegiance from the Polish government in exile to the future People’s Poland). A close friend of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, providing illustrations for his novel Samson the Nazirite, he was a fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt as well as an advocate for Jabotinsky’s successor, Peter Bergson.
The son of a Lodz textile-factory owner who was blinded by a disgruntled employee during the 1905 workers’ uprising against the Russian Empire, Szyk drew political cartoons and participated in vanguard cabaret performances while still in his teens. Enlisting in (and deserting) the czar’s army, he spent the 1920s in Paris. Szyk was not the only painter in town working with “exotic” Jewish material but, unlike his slightly older contemporary Marc Chagall, his work was not exuberantly avant-garde. On the contrary.
Where the irrepressible Chagall created a wildly successful synthesis of expressionism, fauvism, cubism and invented folk art, Szyk’s images, some taken from the Book of Esther were precise and self-contained—as decorative, symmetrical, and intricately patterned as Oriental rugs. Although, like Chagall, Szyk would paint Jesus as a symbol of Jewish suffering, he was more traditional and also more political: One of his major works was a triptych of Jewish martyrdom in czarist Russian, medieval Spain, and Roman-occupied Palestine.
Szyk remained in Paris until 1937 although he visited America, where he was honored by the Library of Congress for a series of paintings devoted to George Washington and the American Revolution, and, returning often to Poland, was decorated by the Polish government for his patriotic work. The two nations merged at the 1939 World’s Fair, where 23 Szyk paintings of Polish-American heroes were installed in the Polish pavilion—a laced-metal tower covered with gilded plaques that became something of a shrine when Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939.
By then Szyk was living in London. His anti-Nazi political cartoons were exhibited and his Haggadah was first published. In late 1940, he relocated to New York where a show of his “war satires and illuminations” opened in May 1941 at a 57th Street gallery. “Mr. Szyk displays an absolute command of the medium employed as a vehicle by means of which pictorial ideas may be projected imaginatively, clearly, and with a distinguished sense of color and design,” Edward Alden Jewell wrote in The New York Times.
Szyk’s American reputation was established six months before Pearl Harbor when Putnam published The New Order, Szyk’s book of anti-Axis political cartoons—a series of drawings that renders the Nazi hierarchy as grotesque but recognizable devils, evil yet pitiful. It was endorsed by the populist art critic Thomas Craven who noted that Szyk’s cartoons had “a note of strange pictorial tragedy, a sad ferocity of utterance which to me indicates an artist of naturally noble and gentle instincts compelled by the highest dictates of his conscience to express his horror of butchery and ruin.”
Time magazine turned to Szyk for its first post-Pearl Harbor cover, a suitably sinister, somewhat simian portrait of Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamamoto, heavy with medals and flanked by two stylized canons pointed straight at the reader. Szyk was soon a public figure whose “one-man war against Hitler,” was celebrated in Click magazine, a short-lived left-wing answer to Life. After Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) enlisted, Szyk took his place as a political cartoonist at the liberal tabloid PM and also drew for the New York Post.
As prolific as he was dedicated, Szyk’s work appeared in Life, Collier’s, Esquire, and Fortune. He made public-service posters for the army—the brawny “The Arsenal of Democracy” bursts from the picture plane—and one of his images emblazoned the Manhattan phonebook. Most powerfully, he addressed the unfolding Holocaust that had consumed his family and was as yet barely recognized in the United States, mainly as illustrations he made to promote Bergson’s Committee for a Jewish Army.
Szyk scarcely relented after the Nazi defeat or the establishment of Israel. His cartoons attacked racism in America, with images of the Ku Klux Klan lynching a black GI, and Dutch imperialism in Indonesia. He did not, however, enlist in the Cold War, mocking the Red Scare while championing the Progressive candidate (and strongly pro-Israel) Henry Wallace in the 1948 campaign, but the Cold War claimed him none-the-less.
As a sponsor of the 1949 anti-anti-Communist Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace (not to mention a member of such subversive organizations as the Win-the-Peace Conference, the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born, the American Slav Conference, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee), Szyk was under investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities when he died of his third heart attack at age 57.
I believe that Arthur Szyk was the first artist whose work I was able to recognize. (Or maybe he was the second: Like thousands of other American kids, I understood that Carl Barks—and not Walt Disney—was the “good artist” who drew Uncle Scrooge comic books long before I knew his name.)
My aunt and uncle gave me a copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which Szyk illustrated in 1945, when I was in second or third grade. It became my favorite book not so much for the haunting stories of the Snow Queen and the Marsh King’s Daughter but for the even stranger color illustrations: the detailed embroidery, angelic expressions, salamander arabesques, costumed demons, humanoid roses, monstrous toads, Egyptian outfits, sinuous poses, sly peasants, grave princesses, Oriental potentates, and grasping troll trees.
Szyk’s name was on the book’s spine and though I had no idea how to pronounce this odd assortment of consonants, it imprinted itself on my 8-year-old brain as a kind of ideogram—so much so that when, decades later, I was given the Szyk Haggadah or saw a copy of The New Order, I thought, “Oh, that guy!”
A child could recognize Szyk’s unique qualities. Still, in their eagerness to establish Szyk’s significance, the contributors to the exhibition catalog are inclined to search for his modernist bona fides. Szyk does have minor affinities to a handful of contemporaries (the magic-realist painter Paul Cadmus, the great Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias) and certain successors. His portraits anticipate those of the similarly fastidious Drew Friedman and, reviewing Szyk’s Berlin retrospective, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman compared him to Mad magazine’s master of clutter, Will Elder, albeit without a sense of humor. But these are relatively inconsequential. Szyk is pretty much sui generis.
While the critic Harold Rosenberg questioned the notion of a specifically Jewish art, he did make a useful observation regarding the nature of a distinctly Jewish worldview, writing that “the Jew’s religion consists precisely in extending his [sic] individual identity backward into the real past and forward into endless time.” It is an insight that might help to explain Szyk’s uncanny position, at once highly topical and profoundly anachronistic.
The Scribe, a 1927 gouache, found in the catalog, but not in the exhibit, suggests a direction not taken. Late medieval scholar stares fixedly forward using a fountain pen to write on parchment; the window behind him opens on a medieval landscape with a biplane in the sky; a cubist painting is affixed to the brick wall of his study.
A review of Szyk’s first American show in December 1933 makes this point. “Now and then an artist of our own time will attempt a throwback to the days of old,” Edward Alden Jewell wrote in The New York Times. “At the moment a Polish artist, Arthur Szyk, is showing some modern illuminations at the Brooklyn Museum. To the task he has devoted many studious years; but while his color is frequently fresh and charming and while the authentic zeal for minute perfection informs these designs, what Mr. Szyk has accomplished serves only to dot the “i” in nostalgia. (Not even eight years later, the same critic would find Szyk a master of his medium and plenty topical.)
Szyk was in and out of his time. He was not simply an unrelenting anti-Nazi or a New Deal propagandist or a committed Zionist. He was also the most imaginative Torah scribe and illuminator of 12th-century Toledo, the Jewish genius of Persian miniatures who never existed. One of his last illustrations, Haman at the Gallows, from 1950, is a self-portrait in which the artist sits at his drawing table, holding a brush in one hand and a hamantash in the other, contemplating Haman’s lifeless body in a costume of embroidered swastikas. His 1945 evocation of Samson in the Warsaw Ghetto might have been painted 500 years earlier, looking forward into a hellish, triumphant future.
Read more of J. Hoberman’s criticism for Tablet magazine here.