Artur Szyk: A 'One-Man Army'
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A ‘One-Man Army’, Artur Szyk, 1930, photo: Bradley Smith / Corbis / Getty Images, center, artur_szyk_fot_bradley_smith_1930_corbis_gettyimages-586025210.jpg
He was an illustrator committed to reviving mediaeval illumination traditions in the 20th century. In his miniatures, he replaced Biblical devils with real-life demons: Adolf Hitler and his entourage. He fought so well with his pen and brush that the American First Lady called him a ‘one-man army’.
A style all his own
In 1894, Szyk is born into a Jewish family which, after moving to Poland from Tsarist Russia, makes their new home in Łódź. From childhood, he enjoys drawing. Even before the restitution of independence, Szyk begins collaborating with the young poet Julian Tuwim; they remain friends until Szyk leaves the country.
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In the reality of a state newly reborn after decades of occupation, Szyk considers his art an instrument of political resistance. The government appreciates his attitude: during the Polish-Soviet war, the young Szyk is appointed the artistic director of the Polish army propaganda department in Łódź.
A year after the victory, when the dust settles, a 27-year-old Szyk goes to France, invited by a gallery owner in Paris. He then travels around Europe, developing his characteristic style, combining an archaic style with contemporary political analysis. Szyk’s main inspirations are the late-mediaeval book illuminations he had first seen in the Louvre as a teenager.
Szyk decides to illustrate key texts of Jewish culture and history. In 1926-1928 he illustrates The General Charter of Jewish Liberties, a mid-13th-century document that granted Jews economic and religious freedom. Szyk exhibits his illustrations at the National Museum, the Belweder Palace and the Royal Castle in Warsaw. His works serve as a reminder of Jewish contributions to Polish history and culture.
The sharp blade of satire
After Hitler rises to power, Szyk immediately takes to criticising him in scathing caricatures. In the late 1930s, the artist moves to London, working on his own illustrated Haggadah, a Jewish text that tells the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. He includes Goering and Goebbels among the oppressors, but the English censor most of his political caricatures in an effort to appease the Reich.
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When it transpires that compromise is not the best strategy against the Nazi Germans, however, the UK begins to appreciate Szyk’s sharp satire. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the British ask Szyk to travel across the Atlantic so that he can stir up public opinion and urge the USA and Canada to enter the war. Szyk accepts, and in 1940 he travels to Canada.
Soon, a local Canadian newspaper, The Halifax Herald, claims that Hitler has put a price on the artist’s head. It’s difficult to fact-check this claim today: one way or another, the news certainly works in Szyk’s favour. In times of war, caricature is a weapon.
In the same year, Szyk moves to the United States. His art falls on fertile ground. In a country that worships the sugar-coated realism of Norman Rockwell, Szyk’s visual language appeals to a wide audience, whilst encouraging them to mobilise against the Nazi German threat.
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During the war, Szyk becomes wildly popular in the States. His illustrations are everywhere: from posters covering walls and billboards, to the pages of newspapers and magazines, postcards and stamps. There are also numerous exhibitions, all proceedings of which go to the British troops.
The New Order
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt calls Szyk a ‘one man army’. He saves his hardest blow for Independence Day, when he publishes an album titled The New Order – a collection of war-themed illustrations. Among many satirical pictures, he also depicts the suffering of the victims, mainly Jews. He wants to remind his readers that the war is not a spectacle staged by a handful of villains, but a tragedy on a massive scale.
Szyk can see the problems present in the United States as well as those in Europe and calls Americans out on their racism. While the anti-Nazi illustrations are published everywhere, his anti-racist works are not so well-received: American magazines keep turning them down for publication.
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Szyk is wildly popular: in 1946, Universal Pictures even makes a film about the artist. Szyk’s illustrations have a political impact ‘as powerful as an atomic bomb’, says the narrator.
Even though Szyk only came to the USA to encourage Americans to fight the Nazis, after the war, he decides to settle there. He acquires citizenship and praises American freedom. Soon, his new homeland succumbs to Cold War paranoia. Being a member of several left-wing organisations, Szyk is considered to be potentially anti-American.
Once again, he expresses his opinions through art, mocking the anti-communist paranoia in his caricatures. After the war, however, his fame fades. His style is no longer fashionable, overshadowed by a new trend: abstract expressionism.
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Artur Szyk dies in 1951. Shortly before his death, he creates a parting gift for his second homeland: an illuminated Declaration of Independence.
Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, translated by Agata Zano