Friday, July 19, 2019

Illuminating Szyk

"The Manciple" Arthur Szyk. 1945.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We cannot fault Arthur Szyk too much for placing a swastika on the Old Testament image of Haman hanging from a gallows. Szyk (pronounced Shick) was an artist/illustrator, proud of both his Jewish and Polish heritage, who lived and worked during the horrors of two world wars. Sentiments expressed in his politically-charged illustrations often found their way into other, unrelated work.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was a bit of an anomaly. He avoided modern movements in fine art, skirted trends in illustration, and instead relied on a more classical approach, using richly-detailed motifs pulled from his cultural heritage. Add to that a strong affinity for Medieval illumination, with an uncompromising approach to the same. If that were not enough, Szyk visually railed against the Axis powers of WWII and embraced political freedom expressed with patriotic zeal – first for his native Poland, then France and England, and finally for his eventual home in the United States.
"Statute of Kalisz" Arthur Szyk. 1927.

This heady mix is at once opulent in detail and rich in symbolism. Although fine artists often deplore the term “craft,” Szyk knew his craft well – and revelled in it.

“The Manciple,” an illustration for the “Canterbury Tales,” is a good primer for Szyk’s style. The medieval figure is crafted in such a way that even its outer shape is attractive. Well-designed, ornate patterns fill the figure’s cloak, then smaller spaces, and then every space between. But, really, Szyk is only toying with us.

We see something far different when the artist begins to flex his illuminator muscles. The frontispiece of the “Statute of Kalisz,” depicting Casimir the Great, is truly a jewel. Szyk’s love for his motherland is evidenced in every nook and cranny of this 1927 work. Significance spills from the focal figure to the very margins of the piece. It would have been impossible for the reader to turn the page without lingering over such mastery.
Dedication page for
"The Szyk Haggada" 1936.

While Szyk was not a practicing Jew, the obvious love for his heritage is found in another book, “The Szyk Haggada.” Like other Haggadas, it narrates the Exodus and is read during Passover. Unlike other narrations, however, Szyk totally avoids ‘graven image’ arguments found in Jewish aniconism, and further convolutes things by introducing unorthodox imagery, some of which needed to be edited. (Yes, swastikas had to be removed from the arms of the oppressive Egyptians!)

Because Polish publishing houses were squeamish about the book, a publishing house was established in England for the sole purpose of printing the book. The opulent quirkiness of the 1936 volume is obvious in Szyk’s dedication page to King George VI.  The dedication reads:
“At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands, shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel. Arthur Szyk, illuminator of Poland.”
“Humbly” seems to be a formality, for a self-portrait of Szyk is in the corner, next to the Polish eagle and a small vignette of modern Israelites. The rest is largely devoted to imagery pulled from the Royal arms of England.
"Four Freedoms: Prayer"
Arthur Szyk. 1949.

The artist was a staunch opponent of tyranny in general and Nazism in particular, but his allegiance could also be a bit pliable. Sorry, King George, but after settling in the U.S., Szyk created elaborate pieces based on constitutional freedoms, and suddenly Americana flooded the corners of his work with red, white and blue bunting, eagles, and bewigged patriots. Perhaps most strangely, he created an illumination of The Lord’s Prayer for the January 1946 issue of Coronet magazine. When compared to his other work, however, it becomes apparent that Szyk’s heart wasn’t quite up to the task.

The quirkiness of Arthur Szyk, in part, made him the popular artist that he was. Giving homage to past and present kings, as well as presenting his work to folks like Eleanor Roosevelt proved his worth. Thrusting barbs – some of which are extremely familiar [and hilarious] – at bullies like Hitler and Mussolini displayed his mettle. Creating such timeless pieces that equal – and surpass – illuminated masterpieces showed that he truly cared.

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