The first exciting museum show of the year is the Contemporary Jewish Museum's presentation of "Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah."
The show highlights his Haggadah, created in 1940, which was a visual commentary on the parallels between the exodus story and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. (Feb. 13-June 29);
Back in 2010, when the Legion of Honor displayed the work of Arthur Szyk, I fell in love again with the work of a man who illuminated my childhood dreams and fantasies. My grandparents' had a lovely library, which included Szyk's illustrated "Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, " "The Arabian Nights" and the "Canterbury Tales."
Their colorful and exotic illustrations transported me into those dream worlds and nourished my imagination. I didn't know his name - as a child, who bothers with the name of the illustrator or that he was a tireless fighter for justice, a political cartoonist of the highest order during WW II and a man who combined amazing skills with 20th century political acumen.
A self-described “soldier in art,” Szyk was a committed activist-artist, advocating for religious tolerance and racial equality for minorities, especially for Jews and black Americans. He rejected the idea of art for art's sake and looked to a time past when there was no separation between fine and applied art.
Arthur Szyk was born in 1894, in Lodz, Poland, a Poland ground under the boot of the harsh and repressive Czarist regime. His family recognized his talent early and as a teenager, he was allowed to go to Krakow and then Paris to study. In Krakow, his teacher Teodor Axentowicz, the Polish nationalist painter and illustrator influenced his political consciousness. He contributed to the satirical Polish journal Smeich and early discovered his lifelong political views, opposing anti-Semitism, the abuse of workers, political injustice of all kinds and German militarism.
During WWI, he was conscripted into the Russian army but soon went "AWOL" and fought on the side of Poland against the Soviet Bolsheviks. After WWI, he moved to Paris as it became clear that the new Polish government was continuing, indeed encouraging, the anti-Semitism. Forced to leave Paris in 1939, he immigrated to the United States where his anti-Axis cartoons began appearing on the covers of Colliers, Time, Esquire, NY Post and other publications.
After settling in the United States, Szyk announced, "At last, I have found the home I have always searched for. Here I can speak of what my soul feels. There is no other place on earth that gives one the freedom, liberty and justice that America does."
Szyk was one of the first political cartoonists to attack racism; several of his cartoons were so outspoken that they were denied publication at the time. He was also an ardent Zionist and didn't hesitate to criticize the policies of the Allies, which limited Jewish immigration to what was then the British mandate of Palestine. Millions more died because they were not allowed to escape, among them his 82-year-old mother.
Some of his most powerful political cartoons portray the sufferings of the Jews under the Nazis, the heroic resistance of the Jews at the Warsaw Ghetto, and the rebirth of the Jewish state and the creation of the "new Jew" - a powerful fighter. Courageous and noble. This image was deliberately created to oppose the cringing, sniveling and racist stereotypes of Jews that had prevailed for two millennia.
Szyk loved three countries: Poland, the land of his birth; the United States, the land of his ideals, and Israel, the land of his people. These nations and their rich histories—particularly their struggles for democracy and independence—filled him with pride. Yet even his beloved America had its flaws of racism and political paranoia. As a Polish Jew who had fought against fascism in his native land in the 1920s and 1930s, Szyk had associated with Communist groups. For this ancient “sin,” Szyk came under the scrutiny of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1951. The stress from the witch hunt induced a series of heart attacks and he died that same year, at age 57.
A master of miniature painting and calligraphy, Szyk brought his unmistakable style to subjects as diverse as biblical stories, literary classics, and political caricature and cartoon. Like the medieval illuminators whose work inspired him, Szyk used intricate borders, decorated capital letters, calligraphy and bright colors to bring his subjects to life. His densely textured symbolism brings to mind surrealism, while some of his grotesque images are reminiscent of Durer. Other influences include Beardsley, Bakst, Indian miniatures as well as medieval illustrations.
He has been called a modern Byzantine painter and his intricate works justify this title. In presenting the work of his Haggadah, the Contemporary Jewish Museum continues to place his work firmly within the realm of fine art and returning Szyk to his rightful place in the art world.