January 14, 2002
THE ART AND POLITICS OF ARTHUR SZYK OPENS AT UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Exhibition Views Holocaust Through the Eyes of Artist and Political Activist Arthur Szyk
WASHINGTON, D.C. — During the first half of the 20th century, Polish-born Jewish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) raised his pen against antisemitism and Nazi tyranny. Through his artwork, Szyk exposed the persecution of Europe’s Jews and pushed for international intervention to end the government-sanctioned slaughter of his people. After moving to the U.S. in 1940, he became one of the most influential and prolific artists in America during World War II, where his works began appearing on the covers of publications such as Time, Colliers and Esquire.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will launch a new special exhibition on April 10, 2002, The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk, which will explore the intersection of Szyk’s art with his politics and present 145 original pieces of his work during the course of the show, some of them on public display for the first time in over 50 years. Unlike any previous exhibition, The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk will interpret Szyk’s life and work within the context of Holocaust history.
Szyk began his career as a gifted illuminator and book illustrator, focusing largely on themes that portrayed Jews as heroic fighters and patriots. Following the 1939 German invasion of his native Poland, Szyk halted work on his illuminated manuscripts and dedicated his talents to the more accessible and popularized art form of political cartooning to encourage support for the Allied cause, particularly from a reluctant American public.
“Szyk’s identity as a Jew was foremost in his artwork as well as the center of his political activism,” explained Steven Luckert, co-curator of the exhibition. “In contrast to many other artists of that period, his political messages were easily understood by the general public. His unwavering commitment to the Allied cause and to the defeat of the Axis powers earned him great respect from people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, who referred to him as a one-man army.”
Using his connections and popularity to bring international attention to the murder of the Jews, Szyk demanded Allied action to end the Holocaust. “Szyk dedicated more time and energy than any other artist of his time to plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe,” explained Luckert. “He understood that Nazi antisemitism was fundamentally different and worked to convince the Allied powers of this.” Szyk’s mother and brother had remained in Poland during the war and were murdered by the Nazis.
Despite these clearly personal motivations behind his activism, Szyk’s politics were much more enigmatic. He was a non-observant Jew who is well known for his illustrations of Jewish religious texts. He crusaded for a Jewish homeland, but chose not to live there after the creation of the independent state of Israel. And although he condemned racism in American society, he freely used racial stereotypes in his artwork to dehumanize the Axis enemies.
“In many of his political choices, he seems to have been motivated by the desire to do what he felt was best for the Jewish people and for the countries in which he lived or supported,” explained Luckert.
The exhibition begins with Szyk’s early illuminations and book illustrations of biblical Jewish stories rendered in the style of 16th century Persian miniatures. Like many young East European artists of the time, such as Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz, Szyk traveled to Paris to study art as a teenager. Although few of Szyk’s paintings and drawings from this period survived, it seems his fascination with Jewish history and Zionism may have been sown during his sojourn there. These interests were strengthened by a trip to Palestine in 1914.
As World War I broke out, Szyk was forced to return to Poland and was conscripted into the Russian Army. After Poland became independent, he served as an officer in the Polish army, where he learned about the massive pogroms carried out against the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. Some suggest that this knowledge further influenced Szyk’s choice of themes and political messages.
Following his military service, Szyk returned to Paris, this time with his family, and began work on The Book of Esther. Composed in the style of Persian miniatures against a backdrop of Assyrian-inspired sculptures, the piece depicts the biblical tale of Jewish triumph in ancient Persia over Haman who had plotted their murder. Szyk’s illuminations were largely intended as an allegory of the strength and heroism of the Jewish people.
Szyk continued his artistic crusade defending the rights of Jews in Poland though the 1920s and 30s. He set out to create an image of the Jews as strong and heroic patriots who had made vast contributions to the prosperity and security of Poland. As political uncertainty unfurled in Poland in reaction to a 1926 coup, Szyk’s illuminated manuscript of The Statute of Kalisz showed how Jews fought to defend the country against foreign oppression during the history of Poland’s struggle for independence.
Although Szyk had produced some anti-Nazi cartoons in the early 1930s as well as the Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript which served as an attack on Germany’s national socialists, it wasn’t until Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 that Szyk temporarily abandoned his illuminations and began producing anti-Nazi cartoons full-time. He had already been living in London with his family for two years when he assumed the role of unofficial propagandist for the Allied powers.
His early wartime work primarily focused on four major themes, the brutality of the Germans, the more primitive savagery of the Russians, the heroism of the Poles, and the suffering of the Jews. These themes were depicted in his 1940 exhibition, War and ‘Kultur’ in Poland, which opened in London, and was the basis for later shows in Toronto and New York. Many of these works attacking Nazi leaders appeared in the 1941 volume, The New Order, which helped introduce him to American audiences.
As the war escalated, Szyk believed his services were most needed in the U.S., where the dangers of Nazism were merely viewed a distant threat. He emigrated to Canada for a short time, eventually landing in New York City in 1940, where he immediately began his campaign to win support for the Allied cause.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America’s war became Szyk’s war. He used his artistic skills to help assuage the fears of the American public as the U.S. entered a global conflict. The USO displayed Szyk poster print reproductions at 500 U.S. Army recreation centers, and a magazine survey reported that his caricatures were as popular as Betty Grable pin-ups for overseas-bound troops.
It was at this point that his images began appearing on the covers of leading publications such as Colliers, Esquire, Time, the New York Post, and the Chicago Sun. His work emphasized the much-needed contribution of Americans to the war effort. He created a series of caricatures on behalf of corporate advertisers, drew patriotic ads for U.S. Treasury War Bonds, and penned a stamp series to raise funds for humanitarian causes.
After the surrender of Germany and Japan, Szyk continued his campaign for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He died in 1951, three years after the creation of the independent state of Israel. Although he never moved there, he did survive to see the fulfillment of his life’s work – the triumph of the Jews over their oppressors and the establishment their homeland.
The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk will be on display from April 10 until October 14, 2002, in the Kimmel-Rowen Gallery on the lower level of the Museum. The exhibition and entrance into the Museum is free and open to the public.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has hosted more than 17 million visitors since it opened in 1993, is America’s national institution for the documentation, study and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.