Szyk was moved to create political work because, as he wrote, "I do not believe art can remain neutral in these times." In fact, his illustrations from the popular press were frequently used by servicemen as pinups and insignia on tanks and planes. However, some of Szyk's anti-Axis illustrations are difficult to appreciate today since his caricatures, especially those of the Japanese, are painfully racist. Also hard to take is the image of a pale, corpulent old man in a bathing suit who serves as the subject of 1944's "The Master Race: Krauts Through the Ages." Is turnabout fair play?
After the war, though now a U.S. citizen living in Connecticut, Szyk served as a designer for the Israeli government. He produced an illuminated copy of the Proclamation of Israeli Statehood of 1948 and several postage stamps, including the Israeli Independence Stamp of 1949. Both have been included at the Mizel show. Szyk also returned to sacred Hebrew texts and in 1950 released a second version of the Book of Esther, fashioned from gouache on paper and dedicated to his mother. In this version, Haman, the villain of the story, is depicted as a Nazi, his clothing decorated with swastikas.
In the last years of his life, Szyk began to illustrate children's books, most notably a compendium of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Two of the most beautiful objects in the Mizel show are illustrations from other children's books--Szyk's drawings for the nursery rhymes "Old King Cole" and "Humpty Dumpty," both done in gouache on board.
At the time of his death in 1951, Szyk was working on the illustrations for an edition of the children's story An Arabian Night's Entertainment, which remained unfinished. And after he died, he was promptly forgotten--until the 1990s. Perhaps the current interest in narrative work helps explain the artist's contemporary appeal. In fact, the Mizel show makes an interesting comparison to the Art and Provocation show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which features contemporary art and cartoons.
The Szyk exhibit as presented at the Mizel does have some limitations. The gallery is a handsome if awkward room with built-in showcases on two walls--hardly ideal for the display of two-dimensional pieces. The good news on this front, according to museum director Leona Lazar, is the launching of a capital building campaign to provide funds for a badly needed expansion of the facilities that may even involve a move downtown.
Another problem is that some of Szyk's pieces are represented by photographic reproductions instead of by originals. This is an increasingly annoying feature of shows in which historical thoroughness is inappropriately given precedence over connoisseurship. Had the exhibit been limited to the originals, the show would have been smaller and less encyclopedic--but it would have been better.
Arthur Szyk: The Man and His Art, through December 4 at the Mizel Museum of Judaica, 560 South Monaco Parkway, 333-4156.