The Arts : Soldier With a Paintbrush
The art of Arthur Szyk is dazzling in its jewel-like colors and exquisitely rendered details, and, as an exhibit in Germany shows, there is a message behind his methods.
Drawn in stark black and white, the uniformed officer poses, dagger sheathed, cap perched at a jaunty angle. His face, however, is a skull with a frozen grin.
This chilling 1939 illustration,The German ‘Authority’ in Poland, is one of the images beckoning the public to the first exhibition of works by Arthur Szyk in Berlin, on what the illustrator and caricaturist would have considered enemy territory.
“When we traveled from Paris to Poland, you had to stop in Berlin; my father would not get out of the train,” recalled Alexandra Bracie, Szyk’s daughter. “He fought the Germans all his life.”
On display at Berlin’s Deutsches Historiches Museum’s I.M. Pei Building through January 4, 2009, “Arthur Szyk—Drawing Against National Socialism and Terror” (011-49-30-20304-750;www.dhm.de) includes 200 works by one of the world’s greatest modern illustrators. It is art with a lesson: Szyk (pronounced Shick), who was born in Poland and came to the United States in 1940, spent most of his career using his illustrations as a way to fight the enemy—from members of the Nazi party and their Japanese allies to racists in America. Today, his images confront Germans with how they were seen by others during World War II.
Divided into nine sections, the exhibit, created in cooperation with the California-based Arthur Szyk Society, is presented both biographically and thematically, with the earliest image dating from 1913 and the latest from 1951, the year of Szyk’s death.
Original works hang on the outermost walls, which circle the rest of the exhibit: Wandering through, guests encounter Szyk the artist (in the first section, called “Artistic Roots”), then Szyk the political activist (in “Political Convictions” and “Art as Propaganda”).
A 1925 illustration of Queen Esther and her attendants, in “Artistic Roots,” is a glorious celebration of color and design, conveyinga sense of Oriental mystery. It showcases Szyk’s style, from his fine detailing, seen in the work’s rugs and tapestries, to his mastery of ancient illumination and illustration techniques—in this case, reminiscent of Persian miniatures.
Taken from Le Livre d’Esther, a collection of illustrations inspired by the Purim story, which Szyk published in France, the piece is one of curator Katja Widmann’s favorites. Even when portraying a scene from ancient Jewish legends, Szyk “depicts very modern-looking women,” noted Widmann, who cocurated the exhibit with historian Johannes Zechner. “One of them even looks like Greta Garbo, minus the dangling cigarette! But the message is clear: History is important for the present.”
The DHM is, after all, a history museum, and thus dramatic events and themes of the first half of the 20th century unfold through Szyk’s eyes. The melding of politics and artistry came to full flower in Szyk’s anti-Nazi Haggada, known as The Szyk Haggadah, on display in the “Political Convictions” section: The artist worked on these illustrations from 1932 to 1938, using the Passover story of Jewish liberation from Egypt as backdrop for virulent caricatures of Nazis as well as militant Zionist symbolism. His Polish publishers were afraid to print the book for fear of arousing Germany’s ire. The Haggada was eventually published in London in 1940. Here, the book is opened to Szyk’s illuminated dedication to King George VI. Last year, the Haggada was reprinted in a limited edition by Irwin Ungar, director and founder of the Arthur Szyk Society (www.szyk.org).
Szyk’s presence in the american media is conveyed through a veritable forest of his wartime magazine covers, printed on floor-to-ceiling banners. Visitors walking among these fixed banners, with their sinister lampoons of the Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini as well as Japanese Emperor Hirohito, will understand how the artist’s work became so much a part of the American landscape. (According to an Esquire magazine study from just before America entered the war, Szyk’s drawings of the enemy were more popular among United States servicemen than pictures of starlets and pinup girls.)
A room within the exhibition is dedicated to media perceptions of Szyk, with newspaper articles and correspondence. Two vintage World War II propaganda films—one about Szyk himself and another that features some of his works—are shown on video screens.
Two other illustrated books are on display in the “Art as Propaganda” section: The New Order, Szyk’s 1941 collection of political cartoons and caricatures from the short-lived, leftist New York newspaper, PM; and Ink and Blood, a 1946 collection of his wartime drawings. A powerful Collier’s magazine cover (February 1943) is featured in an extensive section on Hitler and the Axis powers. Collier’s also picked up Szyk’s 1942 illustration titled He Who Rules by the Sword. It depicts a popeyed Hitler, holding Mein Kampf in one hand and a bloody dagger in the other, posing with Mussolini behind a globe. Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo sits in the foreground grinning, his gloved hand casting a shadow over the European continent. And lurking behind them all is a red-faced devil, horns sprouting from every bony joint. The Son of Heaven, an original work used on another magazine cover, shows Hirohito on a horse that, in a macabre twist, has human feet.
“And those human feet are leaving bloody footprints,” Widmann added. Practically oozing with ugliness, such illustrations have the same elaborate detailing that Szyk used to create images of beauty. However, instead of the rich paisleys of Esther’s Persian scene, they are studded with skulls and swastikas.
“It was not common to show caricatures of Hitler, to make fun of him,” noted Zechner. And “from today’s perspective,” the images of the Japanese would be “too much. But you have to understand it within its time. We could condemn it as racist today, but we were not experiencing Pearl Harbor.”
In a section called “Solidarity and Jewish Resistance” is Szyk’s heartrending illustration of two Jewish children huddling together, dressed in tatters. The drawing was featured on a 1944 Hadassah National Youth Aliyah Committee postcard thanking donors “In the Name of the Jewish Refugee Child.” As the war in Europe came to a close, Szyk’s May 1945 propaganda pamphlet for the United States War Department served as a reminder that the Pacific theater remained active: Mocking a wanted poster, Szyk drew big red “X” marks through the sour faces of Hitler and Mussolini. Only “One to go”—the Japanese emperor. In Szyk’s exaggerated caricatures, Germans—including Hitler and his henchmen—look like buffoons or specters from a Brueghelian hell. And some of the Japanese are depicted as ferocious bats or winged monkeys. (According to Joseph P. Ansell’s Arthur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Japanese pilots found his work so effective that they dropped leaflets bearing a Szyk image from their planes in hopes of scaring American soldiers.) And, though it was never proved, rumor had it that Hitler put a price on the artist’s head.
Szyk’s works are intricate and brilliantly colored, jewel-like; some resemble two-dimensional Fabergé eggs, every surface encrusted with detail. But “you can’t just look at them,” insisted Widmann. “You have to go inside the images…think about the message.”
Shock value is not the issue, suggested Cilly Kugelman, deputy director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, which lent items to the DHM for the exhibit. “For today’s younger people, every figure in the Nazi state is a caricature,” she noted. “They make fun of them anyway. But on the other hand, it could raise interest to see that such images had been created already during the time of National Socialism.”
Two works from Ungar’s collection on display, De Profundis andSamson in the Ghetto (also called The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto), present polar opposites: Jews as victims and as heroes.De Profundis, which Szyk created in April 1943, is a graphite-and-ink drawing that depicts lifeless Jewish bodies strewn in a corner together with the Wandering Jew and Jesus, who holds the Ten Commandments. The image attacks Christian anti-Semitism, said Ungar, and calls on Christians to take accountability for the hatred.
Another of Szyk’s themes is the Jewish ability to stand up for themselves, said Ungar: “His images of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are symbolic of the valor and heroism that Jews should represent.” With its exquisitely drawn bayonets and weapons, the detailed hats and other clothing, the beautifully rendered scene inSamson in the Ghetto is “accurate,” commented Ungar. “I think that the images [in Samson in the Ghetto] are the counterbalance to the world of De Profundis. Arthur Szyk’s call was for action, not pity.”
As Szyk once famously said, “Art is not my aim, art is my means.”
“And that is the idea behind the exhibition,” Zechner noted. “Not to show art by itself but art for moral, political and ethical aims.”
In the immediate postwar years, Szyk turned his sights to problems in American society. His cartoons critiqued racism as well as the rabid anti-Communism of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Ultimately, Szyk himself was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee: The Berlin exhibit displays some of the “evidence” against him, including membership in a human rights organization to which Albert Einstein also reportedly belonged.
Arthur Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894. though his parents had other ideas for his career, Szyk’s teachers urged them to send him to art school in Paris. There, at 15, he began honing his skills in the art of medieval illustration. He was also exposed to debates on creating Jewish art and experimented with Modernist styles. But Szyk went back time and again to painstaking miniaturist methods modeled on 16th-century masters.
Such art resonated with Szyk because it was all about telling a story. Eventually returning to Lodz, Szyk earned a reputation as one of Europe’s finest illustrators.
In 1914, he visited Palestine with a group of artists. On his return, Szyk was caught up in the start of World War I and was drafted into the Russian Army. It was after the subsequent German occupation of his home city that Szyk produced his first anti-German cartoons. During the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920, he served as artistic director of the Polish Army’s Department of Propaganda in Lodz. By then, he and his wife, Julia Liekerman, had a son, George. Alexandra was born in 1922.
As a young man, Szyk celebrated—even revered—ideals he felt were embodied by far-off America: democracy, freedom and equality. Who would expect a Polish Jew to draw portraits of George and Martha Washington? Or create an illuminated Declaration of Independence with all the intricacy of a ketuba? In 1935, Polish President Ignacy Moscicki purchased Szyk’s watercolors depicting the American Revolution as a gift to United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1934, Szyk was invited to the United States to receive the George Washington Bicentennial Medal from Congress. Coinciding with the trip, there were also several exhibits of his political cartoons and caricatures in England, where Szyk and his family moved in 1937.
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, tipping the world into war again, Szyk—in London—wrote to a British newspaper that “Polish Jews have always called the Germans Amalek,” the biblical enemy of the Jewish people. He warned that Germany’s eastward campaign was “closely connected with the problem of destroying Jewry in Eastern Europe.”
Enamored of szyk and convinced his work could help garner American support for the war, the British and Polish governments secretly funded Szyk’s trip to Canada and the United States in 1940. He and his family ended up settling in America. His book, The New Order, one of the first collections of anti-Nazi caricatures, came out in 1941. Szyk then became an illustrator for the Bergson Group, whose aim was to rescue Europe’s Jews. Founded by activist Hillel Kook (who later took the name Peter Bergson), the group was associated with Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, who espoused armed struggle for Palestine.
“The Bergson Group was not part of the mainstream American Jewish community,” said Ungar. “They felt Jews were not doing enough in America to help European Jewry.”
By the time the United States joined the war in December 1941, Szyk’s images were everywhere—on magazine covers, stamps and posters. He called them his “weapons of war.”
With his round face and round-framed spectacles, Szyk was not an imposing figure. “All he needed was a big table and he worked, whatever the circumstances were,” said Bracie, whose Florida apartment is decorated with her father’s artwork.
Jeanne Persily, Bracie’s daughter, recalled how the sunlight would come in and illuminate her grandfather’s little jars of watercolor. “And every brush seemed to have four fibers of hair,” she said. “He spent hours bent over his work….”
Though not particularly religious, Szyk was steeped in Jewish values and deeply committed to the creation of a Jewish homeland. Szyk produced the Illuminated Declaration of Israel’s Independencein 1948, the year he became an American citizen. In April 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Szyk, and a few months later he died of a heart attack.
Szyk’s accomplishments were extraordinary: Not only did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt consider him a soldier armed with a paintbrush, his non-political images entered homes via his illustrations of children’s books and Jewish religious texts.
Nevertheless, after his death, Szyk seemed to be mostly forgotten—that is until Irwin Ungar, then a pulpit rabbi, walked into a bookstore in 1974 looking for a wedding gift.
“I…saw stacks of beautifully illustrated Haggadas,” he recalled. “They were facsimiles of Szyk’s work. I bought one for everyone in the wedding party.”
Thirteen years passed: Ungar left the rabbinate and became an antiquarian bookseller specializing in Judaica. While scavenging in an antique shop in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, he discovered “some illustrated prints with amazing colors…. I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s the same artist.”
Though he never met Szyk, Ungar—born in 1948—said he feels an almost mystical connection to him. Today, Ungar is one of the foremost collectors of Szyk’s work, and he has taken on the task of bringing the artist to a broader audience. He has written a book—Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk (Frog Books)— and produced two documentary films about the artist.
“What moved me about the work is, first of all, I think Arthur Szyk is a great artist,” said Ungar, who loves the way Szyk used color and “emphasized the totality of a page.
“But the reality was, it was not just about the art. Arthur Szyk’s art always had an agenda,” he added. “He was fighting against tyranny and oppression.”
Szyk’s art was used for rallies in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He drew patriotic ads for United States war bonds and created a stamp series that raised funds for humanitarian causes. “While he loved Poland, the land of his birth—and Israel, the land of his people—he also loved America, the land of his ideals,” said Ungar. “And while he felt a sense of loyalty to all of them, he was always willing to criticize them for what they weren’t doing.”
Thanks in large part to Ungar’s efforts, there have been exhibitions at the Spertus Museum in Chicago and the Library of Congress and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (an online version is available, atwww.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/szyk). Szyk’s cartoons and illustrations were displayed at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Japan, where many caricatures owned by Japanese collector Sodei Rinjiro were shown. A traveling exhibition, “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk,” was shown in three Polish cities—Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow—in 2005. After Berlin, the current show will travel to Hanover, Germany.
Ungar actively sought a venue in Germany in 2005 after the success of “Justice Illuminated” in Poland. But his queries to museums there went unanswered. Then, on their way back to the United States, Ungar and his wife, Margie, stopped at the newly reopened DHM. Ungar—struck with an inspiration—asked to meet museum director Hans Ottomeyer. It took only 10 minutes for Ottomeyer to decide that an entire exhibit should be dedicated to Szyk and his work, said Ungar. In a sense, the exhibit was ready-made. About 70 percent of the items are from Ungar’s collection. The rest are on loan from private collectors in the United States and Canada as well as from Rinjiro, whom Widmann fondly called a “Szykomaniac.”
Curators of the exhibit faced a few Germany-specific challenges, said Johannes Zechner. For example, Germany bans the reproduction of the swastika except for educational purposes. There were difficulties with the exhibition poster, which used Szyk’s Ride of the Valkyries, a monochrome drawing of warrior valkyries on horses as bomb-hurling Nazis, swastikas and all. The curators decided to crop the image—and most of the swastikas—for the poster.
Would Szyk be happy to see his works on display in Berlin? “I have really wrestled with how to answer that,” said Ungar. “You need to take into account that there is so much that he has not been here to witness: that is, the relationship between Germany and Israel as it has evolved, the evolving confrontation that Germany has had with its past.
“Arthur Szyk was always eager for world recognition of his art and what he believed in,” he added. “And if the German people are willing to exhibit his art and to show its message to the world, I believe Arthur Szyk would be very satisfied with that.”
– “Arthur Szyk—Drawing Against National Socialism and Terror” will travel to the Wilhelm-Busch-Museum in Hanover, Germany, January 18 to April 21, 2009 (011-5-11-169999-11/16; www.wilhelm-busch-museum.de).
– “A One-Man Army: The Art of Arthur Szyk” highlights the extensive private collection of Gregg and Michelle Philipson, which includes many of the artist’s magazine covers and political cartoons as well as commemorative stamps and commercial art. From October 20, 2008, through February 8, 2009, at the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas (713-942-8000; www.hmh.org).
– “Justice illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk,” the traveling exhibition of the Arthur Szyk Society, will be on display at the Carnegie Mellon University Library’s Posner Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, January 7 through March 28, 2009 (412-268-7680;www.librarycmu.edu).