Small World

It's no surprise that the name Arthur Szyk is unfamiliar. And not just because of all those consonants.

First, Szyk's chosen forms of expression--miniature painting, illustration and illumination--are hardly the kinds of things that lead to fame and fortune. Then there's the fact that, instead of working in some modern style, he chose a kind of magical realism inspired by medieval Catholic art. Plus, he died nearly half a century ago.

But in spite of these strikes against him, Szyk is in the midst of a full-scale rediscovery. The current exhibit Arthur Szyk: The Man and His Art, at the tiny Mizel Museum of Judaica, is only one of several tributes to the once-forgotten artist planned around the country in the next year or two. Others include a major presentation at Chicago's Spertus Museum and an in-depth look scheduled at the Forum Gallery in New York.

The Szyk show at the Mizel is an expanded version of an exhibit first presented in 1995 at the Nathan D. Rosen Museum Gallery in Boca Raton, Florida. That exhibit was organized by curators Terri Greenwald and Marilyn Becker. It was Becker who prepared the interesting text panels that accompany the Szyk exhibit as it appears at the Mizel. Additional pieces included in the Mizel show were provided by Alexandra Bracie, Szyk's daughter.

Szyk was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1894. His middle-class parents recognized his early talent in art, and when Szyk was only fifteen, they sent him to study at the legendary Academie Julian in Paris, where he remained for four years. It was while he was in Paris that he first came across examples of illuminated manuscripts displayed at the Abbey of Cluny. These hand-lettered books--often including the Bible--combined illustration with calligraphy. Szyk, a Jew, immediately became interested in creating similar prayer books for his faith.

Before Szyk, Hebrew calligraphy in prayer books had never been illuminated. And though Szyk was inspired by medieval art, his style was not antiquarian; instead, it bore an obvious resemblance to the work of other artists of the time who were interested in representational images.

In 1914 Szyk left Paris and went to Eretz, in what would later become Israel, with a group of young Jewish artists and intellectuals. On his return to Poland that same year, Szyk determined to become an illuminator and launched his career. But his plans were soon interrupted by World War I; he had returned to Poland just in time to enlist in the Russian army. Following the post-war reconstitution of Poland, Szyk became the reborn state's first artistic director for propaganda. But the widespread tolerance for anti-Semitism in Poland led him to return to Paris in 1921 and never to reside permanently in his homeland again.

Szyk's earliest Parisian efforts furthered his goal of creating illuminated sacred books for Judaism, including illustrated editions of the Bible's Song of Songs and the Book of Esther, neither of which, unfortunately, are in the Mizel exhibit. However, these volumes were similar stylistically to "George Washington and His Time," which is represented at Mizel in the form of miniature collotype lithograph portraits of George and Martha Washington. These exquisite small portraits were part of a group that included miniaturized scenes from Washington's life along with elaborate calligraphy. Szyk's approach was to create amazingly accurate portrayals of his subjects, leaving no detail--no matter how minor--unexpressed.

"George Washington and His Time" was created by Szyk for display at the United States pavilion at the Exposition Internationale in Paris in 1931. At the time, Szyk was still a Polish citizen and had never been to this country. But Washington was a favorite historical figure of his, because the Revolutionary War hero represented to him the universal struggle for self-determination.

Szyk came up with the idea for the Washington project when he learned that the U.S. display at the fair would include a replica of Washington's home, Mount Vernon, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first president's birth. And more than anything he had done before, "George Washington and His Time" would change Szyk's life. He was invited to exhibit the series at the Library of Congress, was awarded the George Washington Medal for his efforts and began a personal relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Szyk then proceeded to tour the U.S. in 1933 and 1934 before returning to Europe.

In 1937 Szyk moved to London to supervise one of his most important projects, "The Haggadah," which was completed in 1940 in collaboration with British Judaic scholar Cecil Roth. This volume is an illuminated text of the Passover story that sets English-language pages opposite Hebrew ones. "The Haggadah" shows off Szyk's stylistic advancement from his "George Washington" days. Whereas the Washington pieces are thoroughly traditional, "The Haggadah" has an airier, more contemporary feel. The Mizel show includes several pre-publication pages as well as a later copy from the museum's permanent collection. The original was issued in an edition of 250, but the book has since been reissued repeatedly and has been a favorite wedding gift for Jewish couples for decades.

The start of World War II led Szyk away from the creation of historical and sacred texts and toward the creation of searing anti-fascist political cartoons and illustrations. He immigrated to New York in 1941 and was soon established as one of the nation's most significant illustrators. The Mizel exhibit offers several examples in this vein, including a number of Colliers magazine covers. Brutal caricatures of the Axis leaders were a favorite subject. In "Hirohito, Hitlerhito and Benito," a Colliers cover based on an ink-and-gouache original of 1942, the three dictators are seen in a mock heroic pose, their features exaggerated to make them look like pompous Neanderthals. Hitler found Szyk's work so personally offensive that he placed a $50,000 price on the artist's head. The FYhrer also personally ordered the execution of Szyk's mother, who unfortunately had remained in Lodz and was killed by the SS.

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia