New York

Arthur Szyk, We’re running short of Jews!, 1943, ink and graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 7/8".

Arthur Szyk, We’re running short of Jews!, 1943, ink and graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 7/8".

Arthur Szyk

New-York Historical Society

Arthur Szyk, We’re running short of Jews!, 1943, ink and graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 5 7/8".

When thinking of the most prominent American artists of the 1940s, the names Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, and Jackson Pollock come to mind, but not Arthur Szyk, who was perhaps the most significant of them in his response to the events and problems of that decade. While both Shahn and Szyk were Jewish activist artists, Shahn did not address the rise of fascist dictators—especially Hitler, whom Shahn rarely portrayed or caricatured, as Syzk brilliantly did in such works as in Antichrist, 1942—nor did he tackle anti-Semitism, which Szyk took on in To Be Shot as Dangerous Enemies of the Third Reich! and We’re Running Short of Jews!, both 1943. Szyk also portrayed the violence of World War II with allegorical irony and incisive vehemence in the Ride of the Valkyries from his “Nibelungen” series of 1942. Meanwhile, lost in melancholy isolation, Hopper’s people seemed indifferent to that devastating war and vicious anti-Semitism.

Szyk’s style was not conventionally realistic, like Hopper’s; nor was it a compromised realism—i.e., a realism accommodating to modernism (flat surfaces, quasi-abstract figures)—like Shahn’s; nor was it uncompromisingly abstract, like Pollock’s. Instead, Szyk ingeniously transformed the profane secular images of cartoons into illuminated manuscript pages with sacred images. His Szyk Haggadah, 1940, “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced,” according to the Times Literary Supplement, was made for a Jewish public. In contrast, The New Order (1941), a collection of his satiric, anti-fascist political cartoons, was conceived for the public at large. But to call Szyk’s cartoons merely “illustrations”—to designate him a clever illustrator rather than a sophisticated Artist (but why can’t one be both at once, as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was?)—is to trivialize them. As the critic Thomas Craven wrote at the time, they were “not only cartoons but beautifully composed pictures which suggest, in their curiously decorative quality, the inspired illumination of the early religious manuscripts.” One wonders if Craven knew that Szyk had studied the technique of manuscript draftsmen in depth, and that his art was as inseparable from his Jewishness as the art of these masters was from their Christianity. As Craven noted, their “cartoons” and Szyk’s were both “extraordinarily lucid in statement, firm and incisive of line”; though he neglected to note it, they were also brilliant in color.

Szyk’s production was enormous; this exhibition provided only a sample, focusing on the works he produced around World War II. He was a “soldier in art,” as the exhibition text calls him, a “one-man army” who addressed racism as well as anti-Semitism. Two parallel drawings, one showing two German soldiers unhappily surrendering to a Jewish American soldier, the other showing a German soldier unhappily surrendering to an African American soldier, make the point decisively, actively undermining notions of racial superiority. What is remarkable about all these soldiers—and about all of Szyk’s renderings of people—is that they are presented as distinct, particular individuals with inner lives. The Germans’ distorted bodies bespeak their distorted minds, indicating that Szyk’s pictures of them are soul portraits. Even when he presents the Nazis as grotesque monsters—as in Walhalla, G.m.b.H (The Niebelungen. Valhalla) from the “Nibelungen” series—he presents them as unique individuals, whatever their ideology.

Though made at the same time, Szyk’s works implicitly defy abstract expressionism, maintaining that consciously made intelligible pictures—works, rather than supposed eruptions of the volcanic unconscious—continue to have aesthetic validity and integrity. In Pollock we see the beginning of what has come to be called “de-skilling”; in Szyk we have an eloquent craftsman, working in the grand tradition. In 1846, Baudelaire wrote that this tradition was over, which turned out to be one of the false predictions of avant-garde art.

Donald Kuspit