The Statute of Kalisz. Artur Szyk. Detail of Polish and French title page, 1927. Ink and paint on paper. The Jewish Museum, New York. (Gift of Andrew A. Lynn, JM 63-67. Jewish Museum/Art Resource, NY. Reproduced with the cooperation of Alexandra Szyk Braice and The Arthur Szyk Society,

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Szyk, Artur

(1894–1951), artist. Artur Szyk was born in Łódź, at that time a Polish, Jewish, and German city under Russian rule. He studied art in Paris and Kraków, and during World War I and its aftermath took part in the armed struggle for Polish independence. During the interwar years he divided his time between Poland and Western Europe. In 1940 he settled in the United States, where he died 11 years later.

Szyk differed from most of his predecessors in the world of Polish and Polish Jewish art in that he was primarily an illuminator, illustrator, and caricaturist. His unique style of illustrating texts was derived from medieval European manuscript illumination and Persian miniatures, while his ultrarealistic and often grotesque caricatures appear to owe something to German expressionism. In at least one sense, however, his work did resemble that of such Polish artists as the nineteenth-century history painter Jan Matejko and Matejko’s Jewish student Maurycy Gottlieb. As was the case with them and numerous other artists active in the Polish lands during the time of the partitions, Szyk articulated a political message into his art. Following his patriotic predecessors, he declared in 1944 that “the Jewish artist belongs to the Jewish people, and it is his mission to enhance the prestige of the Jews in the world” (Luckert, 2002, p. 7).

Szyk’s first major work, illustrations to the Book of Esther (1925), demonstrates his interest in the twin themes of antisemitism and heroic Jewish resistance to oppression. His next major effort, illustrations to the thirteenth-century Statute of Kalisz (a collection of laws granting privileges to Polish Jews), reveals another side of Szyk’s political program: his intense Polish patriotism. In this remarkable work he highlights contributions made by Jews to Polish history, the Jews’ willingness to fight alongside Poles for their mutual freedom, and the Polish tradition of toleration that made possible the flourishing of Jewish life in Poland before the country was partitioned. (See image at right, top.)

Szyk’s patriotism, which won him the support of the Polish government in the 1930s, was accompanied by an even more intense allegiance to Revisionist Zionism. This political stance is reflected in one of his best-known series of illustrations, his Haggadah of 1934–1937, and in his portrayal (in 1936) of Yosef Trumpeldor as the very embodiment of the new “muscular” Jew, a martyr to the cause of the Jewish struggle for national liberation. Szyk often took up non-Jewish subjects, such as illustrations to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, portrayals of scenes from American and Polish history, and the like.

Szyk attained his greatest renown during World War II. Some of his striking caricatures, which memorably demonized Nazism and Japanese fascism, were brought together in his The New Order (1941), a text that received considerable attention. He also tried to bring about awareness of the enfolding Jewish tragedy in Europe. According to his biographer, Steven Luckert, his images during those years were published in leading mass-circulation magazines and newspapers, reaching potentially millions of readers.

Szyk’s reputation declined after his death, but there is no doubt that during the war years his was a major Jewish voice. In keeping with his political views he produced, in 1948, a striking series of illustrations to the Hebrew text of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. Appropriately, the first major retrospective of his work was held, in 2002, under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Suggested Reading

Steven Luckert, The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk (Washington, D.C., 2002).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 203, Arthur Szyk, Papers, 1926-1943.