Arthur Szyk, Laureate
Today, May 1, Arthur Szyk, cartoonist and caricaturist, will be inducted into the 2015 Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Irvin Ungar, the man behind the Szyk renaissance, will give the celebratory remarks. I asked him about why he thought it’s taken so long to recognize Szyk. Ungar: Arthur Szyk died of a heart attack in 1951, at age 57. Had he lived longer, he most certainly would have continued to shine in the limelight he experienced as America’s leading WWII anti-Nazi artist. Yet, astoundingly, he was virtually forgotten, almost. As the saying goes, “Out of sight … out of mind”—particularly for visual art that requires a great deal of your mind to appreciate. The last two decades have witnessed an unstoppable renaissance of interest in Szyk’s art due to exhibitions, publications, and lectures and symposium. To tell you the truth, I am happier now that Szyk is being recognized as a Hall of Fame inductee than if it happened 60 years ago. It is affirmation that he is once again alive, well, and timely.
Was Szyk part of the illustration community when he was alive? To be honest, I don’t know the answer to your question—he was certainly a member of communities, most of them activist in nature, whether in Poland and Paris in the 1920s, England in the late 1930s, or the U.S. in the 1940s. As an illustrator of books, particularly in America in the mid-1940s (Andersen’s Fairy Tales, The Canterbury Tales, The Book of Job, The Book of Ruth, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and more), many were published by the Limited Editions Club and/or Heritage Press, yet I don’t know of Szyk’s relationship with other book illustrators—but I certainly know of his relationship with writers. While doing covers for Collier’s magazine, or political satire for Esquire, or commercial ads that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, I am not aware of his community of commercial illustrator friends in the U.S., but quite familiar with his artist circle of friends during his Paris years.
Why did Szyk stop doing political work? He never stopped … only the agendas changed. Following his World War II propaganda art, toward the end of his life his activist art focused on Americana and Israel. Even when under investigation by the House on Un-American Activities as a so-called “subversive,” he illuminated the Bill of Rights, Four Freedoms Prayer, and Declaration of Independence … all political documents calling for justice and freedom. In cartoon and caricature, he attacked racism against African-Americans and the “witch hunts” of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee. He pursued justice for the oppressed Muslims of Indonesia and advocated for the Jews of Palestine against the landlord British forces and those among the Arab nations who threatened the existence of the Jewish state.
Did Szyk think of himself as an artist or illustrator? There is no question in my mind that Szyk considered himself an artist—yet an artist who often said, “Art is not my aim, it is my means.” Yes, he was a caricaturist and illustrator, but 1940s art critic Thomas Craven stated: “Arthur Szyk is one of the most original artists now working in the field of political cartooning. …” Yes, he was a cartoonist, but as a reviewer in Esquire magazine (January 1942) wrote: To call Szyk a ‘cartoonist’ is tantamount to calling Rembrandt a dauber or Chippendale a carpenter. For not since the middle ages, when monks had months to devote to the illumination of a single letter of a manuscript, has anything been seen comparable to the exquisitely painstaking care that characterizes every detail of the work of this miniaturist. …” To this, contemporary historian Cecil Roth added, “To call Arthur Szyk the greatest illuminator since the 16th century is no flattery. It is the simple truth, which becomes manifest to any person who studies his work with the care it deserves.” Szyk said of himself: “I am but a Jew praying in art.”
What future plans are there for Szyk honors? This summer the international educational organization for teachers called Facing History and Ourselves will publish an original essay I wrote entitled “Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom” within the context of an important resource book A Rebuke to Bigotry. Numerous lectures and programs are forthcoming on university campuses, and several museum shows are now being discussed.
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