Visu­al Arts

Arthur Szyk: Sol­dier in Art

  • Review
By – October 20, 2017

Arthur Szyk: Sol­dier in Art, edit­ed by Irvin Ungar | Jew­ish Book Council

Artist Arthur Szyk (18941951), born in Lodz, Poland, is cur­rent­ly the sub­ject of an impor­tant exhi­bi­tion at the New-York His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. Szyk’s work has not been shown in New York City in over forty years, a sur­pris­ing omis­sion con­sid­er­ing the artist’s promi­nence as a bit­ing polit­i­cal satirist dur­ing World War II, his accom­plish­ments as a book illus­tra­tor, and the fact he made his home in the city after immi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States in 1940.

Irvin Ungar, long­time pres­i­dent of the Arthur Szyk Soci­ety, serves as edi­tor for Arthur Szyk: Sol­dier in Art, a lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed, over­size vol­ume with over 200 col­or plates that bears the same name and revolves around sim­i­lar themes as the exhi­bi­tion. While dis­cussing many of the works fea­tured in the show, it is not an exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue. Read­ers will ben­e­fit from the longer nar­ra­tive and the vast­ly larg­er amount of mate­r­i­al allowed by a book, which offers a fuller pic­ture of Szyk’s diverse body of work.

Szyk is best known for his remark­able Passover Hag­gadah, char­ac­ter­ized by the artist’s sig­na­ture minia­ture detail­ing, akin to medieval man­u­script illu­mi­na­tion, and strong col­or. But there are oth­er sides to Szyk’s art: notably scathing war images denounc­ing Hitler, and fer­vent pro-Jew­ish mate­r­i­al fre­quent­ly tout­ing Jew­ish strength and mil­i­tary prowess.

Take, for exam­ple, Bat­tle of the War­saw Ghet­to, which vivid­ly pro­claims Jew­ish grit, specif­i­cal­ly in ref­er­ence to the War­saw Ghet­to upris­ing. Paint­ed in water­col­or and gouache in April 1945, the sec­ond anniver­sary of the upris­ing, the image por­trays male and female fight­ers, young and old, con­quer­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tive SS offi­cer lying on the ground with his hel­met and gun strewn use­less­ly around him. One of the Jews mock­ing­ly holds up a sign with Himmler’s orders that reads, East­ern Dis­trict, Order to the Troops: All Jews must be killed.” Oth­er armed Jews pop­u­late the back­ground, which includes a glimpse of the ghetto’s infa­mous wall, and one proud­ly holds aloft a Zion­ist flag. To aug­ment his point, Szyk inscribed words on all four high­ly dec­o­rat­ed bor­ders of the image, inspired by Per­sian-style minia­tures. At the bot­tom is a ded­i­ca­tion to Sam­son in the ghet­to,” refer­ring to the bib­li­cal fig­ure in Judges, which explic­it­ly links Warsaw’s Jews with this strong­man who kills his Philis­tine oppres­sors even while know­ing that he will die, too. Szyk proud­ly divides this short phrase with two words — MY PEO­PLE,” over­ly­ing a Star of David. A phrase around the bor­der bears Szyk’s sen­ti­ments toward the Nazis, also bib­li­cal in nature: To the Ger­man peo­ple, sons of Cain, be ye damned for ever and ever amen.”

Four insight­ful essays exam­ine Szyk’s art­work — includ­ing the pow­er­ful Bat­tle of the War­saw Ghet­to—his unique per­son­al style, and his posi­tion as an artist-activist dur­ing World War II — from his pas­sion­ate sup­port of Israel to his avid Amer­i­can patriotism.

Saman­tha Baskind is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

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