Friday, December 17, 2010

Arthur Szyk at the Legion of Honor

Seder Plate - part of Szyk's Haggadah
 A master of miniature painting and calligraphy, Szyk brought his unmistakable style to subjects as diverse as biblical stories, literary classics, and political caricature and cartoon. Like the medieval illuminators whose work inspired him, Szyk used intricate borders, decorated capital letters, calligraphy and bright colors to bring his subjectsto life.  His densely textured symbolism brings to mind surrealism, while some of his grotesque images are reminiscent of Durer. Other influences include Beardsley, Bakst , Indian miniatures as well as medieval illustrations. 

Although a section of the exhibit displays Szyk's political art - an important part of his career - the Legion exhibition places his work firmly within the realm of fine arts—a major milestone in returning Szyk to his rightful place in the art world .

A self-described “soldier in art,” Szyk was a committed activist-artist, advocating for religious tolerance and racial equality for minorities, especially for Jews and black Americans. Fleeing from the Nazis, Szyk and his family settled in the United Stated in 1940. There, Szyk announced, "At last, I have found the home I have always searched for. Here I can speak of what my soul feels. There is no other place on earth that gives one the freedom, liberty and justice that America does."

Szyk loved three countries: Poland, the land of his birth; the United States, the land of his ideals; and Israel, the land of his people. These nations and their rich histories—particularly their struggles for democracy and independence—filled him with pride.

As a young man, Szyk developed a political consciousness that was influenced by his teacher, Teodor Axentowicz, the Polish nationalist painter and illustrator. As a contributor to the satirical Polish journal Smeich, Szyk drew on themes of antisemitism, worker abuse and the German militarism - themes that were to occupy him throughout his life. 

 As a “citizen soldier of the free world,” Szyk saw much to celebrate in other countries, too, particularly countries that had won their independence and championed democracy. He created stamps to celebrate the anniversary of the African nation of Liberia. He twice illuminated the history of Canada. Szyk even created a 51-painting series commemorating Simon Bolivar, the “George Washington of South America,” though he himself had never traveled to the continent. Most famously, his Visual History of Nations series pays tribute to many founding members of the United Nations.

Yet even his beloved America had its flaws of racism and political paranoia. As a Polish Jew who had fought against fascism in his native land in the 1920s and 1930s, Szyk had associated with Communist groups. For this ancient “sin,” Szyk came under the scrutiny of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1951. The stress from the witch hunt induced a series of heart attacks and he died that same year, at age 57.

Simon Bolivar at Junin (historic battle during their wars for independence

Arthur Szyk: Miniature Paintings and Modern Illuminations at the Legion of Honor. 
December 4, 2010 to March 27, 2011


Zoomie said...

Such rich, dense work!

namastenancy said...

There are magnifying glasses at the exhibit to allow the viewer to look at the work in detail. But there is so much - I was getting dizzy trying to look at it close up. But he's an amazing talent - most of these pieces are no more than 3" x 5" or maybe a bit larger.