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Justice Illuminated The Art of Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)

by Gad Nahshon

Thanks to the Spertus Museum and the guest curator Rabbi Irvin Unger of Historicana, we have a new opportunity to face the art of Arthur Szyk, a great artist, a man for all seasons, a rare humanitarian, an original, prolific artist who first of all used art as a weapon. We should bless those who contributed to his comeback because he has been forgotten. Rabbi Unger is an expert of Szyk's art. He is the owner of the Arthur Szyk Archives.

It should be noted that the only country which never has had an exhibition of Szyk's art is Israel. He visited Israel. He illustrated with his unique style the Israeli Declaration of Independence multi-colored lithographic print (1949), the lithograph of Israel: A Visual History (1949) in which he summarized 4,000 years of Jewish history (according to Rabbi Unger) and he even designed several early Israeli stamps. Often I think that Israel did not like Szyk because of a less known fact: in the 1940's, Szyk, who lived in New York, became an activist in the Irgun Tsvai Leumi The Irgun or: he joined the Jabotinsky camp in America. Szyk used his art as a weapon for the Irgun ideas. He supported the so-called Bergson group or Ben-Hecht group in America. First he was active in the struggle in America to save the European Jewry from the Holocaust. He believed and published articles calling for America's public opinion to do something in order to save Jews or, at least, to reduce the scope of the Nazi genocide. From 1944 he was active as a leader inside the Irgun's body, namely, The American League for Free Palestine. Therefore, he fought against the British cruelty and for a free, independent Jewish State in Palestine.

Szyk, who was born in Lodz, Poland, on June 3, 1894, viewed himself as an eternal refugee, always in exile. After the Holocaust, he fought for the ending of this Jewish destiny. Szyk and his wife, Julia, served the Irgun with love and dedication. He fought for justice with Peter Bergson, Ben-Hecht, Shmuel Merlin, Yitshag Ben Ami, Harry Selden, Stella Adler and Eri Jabotinsky, to name a few. His Irgun's chapter is well integrated in his personal-professional biography. Indeed, we still cannot find his biography in the bookstores, sad to say. This giant is still looking for his biographer. Rabbi Unger, who promotes the Szyk legacy, and Spertus Museum, located in Chicago, should be blessed for their exhibition The Art of Arthur Szyk which opened on August 16, 1998 and will close on February 28, 1999.

The following is Szyk's condensed biography (Spertus Museum): Born in 1894 into a middle-class family in Lodz, Poland, Szyk left home at age 15 to study art in Paris. As a young artist, Arthur Szyk experimented with various contemporary styles of the time, including abstraction. But as a lover of history, he felt abstract left too much to the imagination. He sought clarity in his work and sensed a need to educate. He was drawn to the intricate and decorative style of illumination, in the tradition of 16th-century miniaturist painters. To accomplish this, Szyk created miniature scenes and portraits, illuminating initial letters, decorative and symbolic border patterns, and calligraphy.

Szyks art extolled his loyalty to three countries: Poland, the homeland of his birth; Israel, the homeland of the Jews; and America, the homeland of freedom. One of his most important works produced during his early years was the 45-page Statute of Kalisz, which glorified the 13th-century edict granting rights of citizenship to Poland's Jews. In 1931, he was commissioned by the League of Nations to illuminate its charter.

The artist's interpretation of the Passover Haggadah was acclaimed by The Times (of London) as worthy of being considered among the most beautiful books ever produced by the hand of man. Using modern-day political figures to represent traditional characters from the Passover story, including Hitler as the fabled wicked son, Szyk was asked to downplay the political nature of the work before any publisher would agree to print the now-famous volume.

As the urgency of the Holocaust loomed overhead, and specifically in 1939 at the German invasion of Poland, Szyk's life and career altered course. Living in London at the time, British authorities dispatched Szyk to the U.S. to sway American public opinion against the Nazis. Relocating to New York City, he moved away from his established illumination style. He forged a new approach within the genre of political caricature that incorporated both the precise detail and fine craftsmanship of his miniaturist illustrations, combined with the clear message and barbed satire of political commentary.

It was during World War II that Szyk produced his boldest work, as the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post, producing a steady stream of anti-Nazi cartoons and caricatures for major U.S. publications, including Time, Collier's, Esquire, the New York Times, and the Chicago Sun. In many newspapers, the drawings were placed on the front page or elsewhere within the news, rather than on the editorial pages, where cartoons usually appear. His work vilified the Nazis, the Japanese, and their cohorts, while galvanizing strength and support for the allies noble fight for freedom, and exposing the anguished faces of the persecuted victims. As a hater of hate of any kind, while the U.S. fought injustice overseas, Szyk was among the first to speak out against segregation and other forms of racism against blacks in the American armed forces. His anti-Nazi propaganda drawings were used to promote U.S. war bonds, and were credited with boosting more sales than any other vehicle. A survey conducted by Esquire magazine published in 1941 proclaimed that Szyk's political cartoons were more popular with young Americans in training under the Selective Service Act that photos of movie actresses or pin-up girls.

After the war, Szyk continued his advocacy on behalf of Europe's Jewish refugees, with works calling for the establishment of the State of Israel. His later work returned to the art of illumination, creating well-known illustrations for Andersen's Fairy Tales, Arabian Nights' Entertainments and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In addition, he illuminated the Proclamation of Independence of the State of Israel and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Szyk died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 57. He was survived by his wife, Julia, his son, George and daughter, Alexandra. During the different stages of his life and career, the man who decorated countless works was, himself, decorated by three nations, Poland, France at the U.S.; and in 1948, he proudly succeeded in becoming a citizen of the U.S. His books continue to be reprinted and his works hang in numerous prominent international museums and galleries, including the Museum Naradowa, Warsaw; the British Museum, London; the Library of Congress and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rabbi Unger provides us with very important facts in his website: Index - http:\www.szyk.com.sitehtm. The following is from this index:

Arthur Szyk (pronounced Shick ) is considered by scholars to have been the greatest 20th century illuminator working in the style of the 16th century miniaturists. Szyk was the leading political caricaturist in America during World War II. His Haggadah was described by the London Times, at the time of publication in 1940, asa a book worthy to be placed among the most beautiful books that the hand of man has produced. Taken together, Arthur Szyk is truly one of the most remarkable and talented artists of modern times. Known as Franklin Roosevelt's soldier with a pen, Szyk was a spirited defender of liberty and a passionate opponent of injustice, a true lover of mankind.

The last few years have seen a growing interest in Arthur Szyk. While many remember him from their youth by marvelling at his illustrated Andersen's Fairy Tales, others recall his poignant World War II caricatures and cartoons on the front pages of many of America's leading magazines (Collier's, Time, Esquire) lampooning the Nazi and Axis leaders in mockery and scorn. Some remember seeing his works exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair, others have viewed them on display in The White House in The FDR Library in Hyde Park. Recognized and decorated by numerous governments both on a local and national level, Szyk's reputation is international. His books continue to be reprinted; his Haggadah, Andersen's Fairy Tales, The Ten Commandments, articles on Szyk's famous Statutes of Kalisz are reappearing; and The Library of Congress has recently printed a calendar of his art.

Arthur Szyk died of a heart attack on September 13, 1951. He was creative until his last moment. It is hard to believe but Szyk, before his death in New Canaan, Connecticut, was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a member of... The Communist Front Organization. This is the irony of history. Szyk fought, always, for human freedom and against any tyranny. He was a civil rights fighter. He was a pioneer of freedom. His legacy means that the artist has an obligation to fight for political and social goals. He should not isolate himself by believing in Art for Art Sake. The greatness of Szyk stems from his genius: the ability to use ancient techniques 400 years old to express his convictions and his political goals, as well. He knew how to use the past in order to achieve a better future for humanity and first of all, for his nation, the Jews. Just look in his 1920's new version of The Book of Esther. By using, also, swastikas, Szyk expressed his outcry against modern anti-Semitism. Let's bring Szyk back to our artistic world.


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