Spring 2003

Political rage from Szyk

The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk

By Steven Luckert
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, £26.95, $35

Anyone who admires the art of satirical distortion, the power of acerbic humour, or the ferocity of anti-Nazi propaganda must hold the legacy of Arthur Szyk [pronounced Schick] in high esteem. Szyk (1894-1951) combined realism and symbolism to ridicule his prey. He was a miniaturist who created monumental work. He built myth with one hand and deflated it with the other. He expressed revulsion for his enemies, yet his images had a curious caustic beauty. Not only did he render the perpetrators of the Holocaust – Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, Himmler – as well as the Axis dictators – Mussolini, Pétain, and Hirohito – as vile buffoons by inflating their physical quirks into trademarks of evil, he made them in watercolour images that are so precisely detailed it is difficult not to be seduced by their majesty. Szyk’s art eviscerated the wicked just as paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or drawings by Albrecht Dürer (among the artist’s key influences) had done centuries earlier.

Born in the Polish city of Lodz when it was part of the Russian empire, Arthur Szyk spent World War I there in a coterie of Jewish expressionists and nationalists. He then moved first to Paris, where he studied art, and next London, where he worked as an artist prior to World War II, and ultimately settled in New York. During these years he supported Communist and anti-Communist regimes in Poland, fought for Polish liberty against the Soviets, stood up for a Jewish army, embraced Zionist ideology and created Jewish art that attacked anti-Semitism as it heralded victory over European Jewry’s persecutors. His major works on Jewish themes included The Book of Esther (originally published in France in 1925), a cautionary biblical tale of the planned destruction of the Jews in ancient Persia, and The Haggadah (1934-39), an ancient (and continuous) history of Jews. For the former he devised an intricate rendering style influenced by Persian miniatures. For the latter he politicised ancient tales to underscore the Jewish condition in twentieth-century Europe.

Though Szyk’s work is rooted in religious tradition, his imagery illuminated human conflict. In 1939, when Poland was carved up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Szyk resolved temporarily to cease all other work solely to make propaganda aimed at persuading Americans to join forces against the triple threat of Nazism, Fascism and Imperialism.

He produced countless drawings of corpulent Nazis and fanged Japs (though he never attacked Stalin). Some were published on covers of Colliers and Time, as well as in two books of caricatures and vignettes, The New Order and Blood and Iron. After his death the work fell into obscurity until about two decades ago, and in Spring 2002 Szyk was given a exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC, which published this catalogue. In art history terms, Szyk is in the shadows of Grosz and Heartfield, celebrated for their impact on Modern art, while Szyk is regarded as a propagandist. ‘Szyk’s caricatures perfectly reflected the prevailing moods and attitudes of America at War,’ Steven Luckert writes in the catalogue text.

Szyk wed national priorities to personal beliefs: in one of his most powerful tableaux, Satan Leads the Ball, a grotesquely hirsute devil leads a pack of venal barbarians (Hitler and Axis henchmen, including a half-naked midget Duce) to their Götterdämmerung. This is not subtle in any way. ‘[He] did not retreat into a world of symbolism or abstraction,’ writes Luckert. Nor did he make poetry out of murder, but he used graphic exaggeration as a weapon against such crimes. Not Modern, like Picasso’s Guernica, or even like Heartfield’s photomontages, Szyk’s work was startling at the time, and today exemplifies how a committed artist can make a mark on public perception.

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