I received a copy of Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk in the mail yesterday. Most readers are probably familiar with Szyk’s art. I posted the “Four Sons” image from his illuminated Haggadah earlier this year.
As I mentioned in that post, a problem common to much political art is the political content takes precedent over the quality of the drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. Szyk, by contrast, is a political artist who is truly a master. His biography is incredibly interesting as well. Born in Lodz, Poland (1894) and expelled from high school for producing anti-Czarist, pro-Zionist sketches, Szyk went on to study art in Paris, Krakow and Palestine. He fought in the Russian Army during World War I (1914) and as an anti-Bolshevik guerilla during the Polish-Bolshevik War (1921). He also served as Artistic Director of the Department of Propaganda for the Polish Army from 1919-1920. For Szyk, the ideal type of modern Jew is a warrior who fights for his dignity and for that of others.
Szyk was an early anti-fascist and his caricatures of Axis leaders in Collier’s, Coronet, and other magazines are perhaps his best known work besides the Haggadah. Eleanor Roosevelt termed him “ a one-man army” against fascism. Examples below:
Szyk believed in the promise of the American Dream and celebrated America’s gift of Liberty to the world writing, “In America, I have found the home I always searched for. Here I can speak of what my soul feels. There is no other place on earth that gives the freedom, liberty and justice that America does.”
At the same time, he recognized this country’s faults (racism, injustice) and supported the civil-rights movement and the labor movement.
Szyk was a dedicated Zionist. Gad Nahshon (Jewish Post) writes, “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.” Despite his obvious dedication to the Jewish people and state, the revisionist strain of Zionism which motivated Szyk and his strong advocacy of the Irgun may explain why his work has never been exhibited in Israel.
In another sad irony, Szyk, a life-long anti-communist, was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his supposed relations with a group affiliated with the Communist Party. Friends and close associates feel the disillusionment he experienced from this event led to his death by heart-failure in 1951.
The image below compares the ships bringing Jewish refugees to Israel to the Mayflower.
If you have never seen his work, it is fantastic. These digital images do not capture the vibrancy of his color palette but you can at least get an idea. This last image is Hillel: