Arthur Szyk, whose work is now on display at the New York Historical Society, was one of the most important illustrators of the twentieth century, and yet today he is barely remembered. His work was featured everywhere from the White House to the New York Yellow Pages. His work was not purely secular: He illustrated haggadahs and infused religious images into his work, and in his political pieces, he worked images of Jewish figures like Moses into his art.
His disappearance from the public memory has several probable causes. He was not part of any artistic school, and no artistic schools were founded around him. He died in 1951, on the precipice of the birth of modern art which his works did not fit into stylistically. He produced hundreds of works while in the US, but he wasn’t here for long enough to interact with the art world. His works are all on paper so hanging them in museums for long periods of time degrade them so they are difficult to show. The people that knew him on a superficial level thought of him as an illustrator because of his work on the Anderson Fairytale. Having a difficult name did not help the remembering situation either.
Ultimately, I think the main reason for his lack of recognition is that after he died, his family immediately dismissed his dealers because the son wanted to handle his father’s estate. When Szyk’s son died a year after him, there was no one in the market fighting for him and few who really cared about showing the art left. His wife sold off the remaining works in large lots to private collectors. But in 1992, he began to be pulled out of obscurity by Irvin Ungar, a process continued to this day with the new exhibition at the New York Historical Society.
The New York Historical Society’s Szyk exhibition focuses on his war-based works. In these works, he dealt with the complicated space of being Jewish during the war. In “Modern Moses,” he depicts Moses with a soldier under his arm. “Pilgrims,” also known as “Illegal Passengers,” prominently features a magen david, and two ships. One is a classic Mayflower ship while the other is modern and features a star of David. It truly speaks to the immigrant experience both old and new. All of his works are filled to the brim with images, but rather than looking crowded, they appear to be trying to tell the whole story. Szyk’s life was much the same way, filled with constant work. He rarely took more than a week to finish a piece.
I highly recommend checking out “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” at the New York Historical Society to discover an artist that was almost lost to history.
Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art is now open and runs through January 2018.