The exhibition Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art has just concluded at the New-York Historical Society; its title refers to the Polish-Jewish artist’s dedication to using his talents for political purposes. In these works, Szyk (1894-1951) protested fascism and Nazism, proclaimed his support for Zionism, and commemorated Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. Diane Cole writes in her review:
Arthur Szyk may well be the only great Jewish artist whose work countless people recognize simply because they have attended a Passover seder. First published in 1940 and still a Passover favorite, Szyk’s The Haggadah, with its striking mix of modern and ancient imagery, has imprinted itself on our communal holiday memory of the retelling of the exodus from Egypt.
Less well known are the explicit connections between the Egyptian pharaoh and Hitler that Szyk had embedded in his original version of the Haggadah he created in the 1930s. It also featured swastika-bearing Egyptian taskmasters and a sinuous serpent with a row of swastikas on his back. Szyk painted them over to ensure publication, but there’s no mistaking the anti-Nazi message that remained in his sarcastic depiction of the “wicked” son as an assimilated German Jew proudly sporting Bavarian-style riding gear and a Hitler-like mustache.
Nor was his Haggadah Szyk’s only political salvo before, during, or after World War II. As a self-described “soldier in art,” he wielded brush and palette as a weapon throughout the 1930s and 1940s to attack fascism, plead for the rescue of European Jewry, and argue the case for an independent Jewish state. His illustrations and drawings were animated and passionate, seen in biting political cartoons in newspapers around the country, on the covers for such mass-market magazines as Time and Collier’s, and on numerous posters, programs, and other printed materials.
Szyk’s activist art represents only one aspect of his highly successful career—his vibrant illustrations of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and other literary classics embody another—but it is the most dramatic.