The stylistically dense and politically uncompromising works of Arthur Szyk — one of the first artists to bring attention to the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated — are featured in a major new exhibit at the Magnes museum in Berkeley.
Szyk (pronounced “shick”) arrived as an immigrant to the United States in the late 1940s already a prolific and commercially successful illustrator who saw himself as a “soldier in art,” armed with a palette and brushes against tyrants and totalitarianism of all stripes.
Millions saw his caricatures in the 1930s and ’40s, lambasting Hitler and exposing Nazi genocide, on the covers of magazines such as Time and Collier’s. By some reports, his political cartoons were more popular than pin-up girls on the walls of U.S. military bases.
Szyk “visualized evil in a very special way,” Jewish art scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said at a private event on Feb. 19, a few weeks after the show opened on Jan. 28. “His was the art of insult that subverts symbols of power into weapons of degradation,” she said, adding, “If Szyk were alive today, he’d be an Instagram hit.”
Tragedy and farce coexist perfectly in Szyk’s grotesque portrayals of Hitler, Goebbels and Mussolini, said Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. The exhibit will run through May 29, when the Magnes closes for summer, and then again for three months next fall.
Szyk waged his war of images in small-size and miniature formats, “in contrast to the magnitude of the themes he confronted and the human-rights violations he exposed,” Spagnolo said. Those themes include resistance to tyranny and the celebration of struggle, reflecting the times he lived through.
Spagnolo and Magnes faculty director Benjamin Brinner will offer tours and remarks about the exhibit at a free public event on March 12.
In interviews and publications, Szyk often said, “Art is not my aim, it is my means.”
Szyk was born into a Polish Jewish family in 1894. His life was framed by two world wars, the collapse of European democracies into fascism, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel and the displacement of refugees like himself. Educated in France, he eventually settled in New York in 1940 and died in 1951.
Szyk used motifs from religious texts and iconography, history, politics and culture, pairing meticulous craftsmanship with blistering commentary.
His style was “painstaking, fastidious, even obsessive,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “He’s unique, a one-off. He belongs to no school, he has no followers.”
Many of his works — such as his series of four League of Nations illuminations (illustrating articles contained in the league’s charter) and his illumination “Thomas Jefferson’s Oath” (including the line “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”) — recall the artistry of medieval manuscripts.
The richly illustrated Haggadah published by Szyk in 1940 was the most expensive book of its time. A trade edition of the work was a popular bar mitzvah gift, and images reproduced in knock-offs brought Szyk’s art into many U.S. Jewish homes.
The current Magnes exhibit includes more than 50 original works from the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection, donated to the museum in 2017. In printed materials, the museum has referred to this as “the most significant collection of works by Arthur Szyk” and “an unprecedented gift from Taube Philanthropies.”
Eager to let the public in on the cache while the collection’s more than 450 pieces were being examined and cataloged, the Magnes opened an exhibit in 2018 that featured high-resolution images of items in the collection, offering what it deemed “unprecedented insight in[to] the many worlds of Arthur Szyk.”
The new exhibit — titled “In Real Times. Arthur Szyk: Art & Human Rights (1926-1951)” — offers even more insight into some of the artist’s deepest concerns.
The pieces are grouped into categories, including “Rights of Refugees” (Szyk’s drawings of children declared enemies of Third Reich), “Right to Resist” (his paintings of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), “Rights of Nationhood” (featuring stamps and national symbols) and “Right to Expose Tyrants (depicting the crimes of the Holocaust).
Among the works is a 1943 piece titled “We’re Running Short of Jews,” dedicated to the artist’s mother, who was murdered by the Nazis, reportedly at the Chelmno extermination camp in 1942.
The section “Right to America” highlights the artist’s appreciation of his new home country while also calling out racial discrimination, as in the 1949 drawing of hooded Klansmen approaching a tied-up black man. It is captioned “Do not forgive them, oh Lord, for they do know what they do.”
“Through his prolific pens and paintbrushes, Arthur Szyk showed his strong commitments to democracy, freedom and justice; to Poland, America and Israel. His convictions speak strongly to me as another Polish Jew who proudly claims America as my second home,” Taube Philanthropies chair Tad Taube said in remarks at the Feb. 19 event.
The exhibit also features two interactive stations that bring visitors even closer to Szyk. They can zoom in on any of the collection’s 450 works, each of which has been digitized, to explore the intricate details.
“You’d need a magnifying glass, if not a microscope, to look this closely,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. Some work is so dense and minute that Szyk himself used a magnifying glass to paint them.
Moreover, at one workstation, visitors can select from hundreds of images cropped from Szyk’s works to create their own collages and cartoons. The new creations are projected onto the gallery wall and can be shared online in “real time.”
And what would Szyk be drawing if he lived today? “The same anti-totalitarian message,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggested, “upholding the same humanitarian values, vilifying tyrants and dictatorships, and bringing attention to genocide wherever it happens.
“All his issues are contemporary,” she added. “Visitors to this exhibition may be thinking, ‘That was then,’ but we still need the Szyks of this world today.”