November 18, 2018

Soldier in Art: Arthur Szyk

The short documentary “Soldier in Art: Arthur Szyk,” screening through June 5 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West LA, will introduce a new generation to the work of the great artist, who wielded his paint brush like a sword.

This column reviewed an earlier documentary about Szyk in 2006, and the remarks still hold up.

Szyk (pronounced Schick) was a Polish Jew, whose mordant drawings of Hitler and his henchmen during the Nazi era were equaled in ferocity and wit only by David Low, the great British cartoonist. But while Low was a skillful draftsman, Szyk was a true artist of illuminated miniatures, rooted in his studies of medieval manuscripts.

Szyk illustrated the visual histories of many countries, but, he once said, he truly loved only three — Poland, Israel and the United States. In each instance, he expressed his affection through his art: “The Statute of Kalisz,” commemorating the Charter of Jewish Liberties in 13th century Poland for his native country; the Declaration of Independence for Israel; and a series on the Revolutionary War for the United States, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt hung in the White House.

His greatest impact on America (and me) was during World War II, when his devastating illustrations — one hesitates to call them cartoons — of the Axis leaders graced the covers of Time and many other American magazines. His works even enlivened U.S. Army barracks next to pinups of Betty Grable.

I was moved to write my very first fan letter to the artist, along with an idea, now forgotten, for a future cartoon. Since Szyk never responded, our relationship remained rather one-sided.

Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894, and the precocious lad started drawing portraits of guests in his parents' home at age 4. As a 16-year-old, he moved to Paris, the world's art capital, and in 1914 he went to Palestine and Constantinople.

Deported from Turkey, Szyk was drafted into the czar's army but deserted when the Russian army abandoned his native Lodz. As an ardent Polish patriot, he fought with the legendary Marshall Jozef Pilsudski against the Soviets in 1920.

While growing as an artist in the 1920s and 1930s, Szyk enjoyed life in “warm-hearted” Lodz and fondly remembered all-night parties with famous musicians and actors in his parents' home, accompanied by his singing mother and piano-playing father.

With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, he became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that “the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter.” At the outbreak of World War II, Szyk fled to England and in 1940 moved to the United States. After the war, he applied his talents in support of Israel's struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.

Throughout his life, until his death at 57 in 1951, Szyk always returned to his Jewish themes, from argumentative shtetl figures and paintings of Jewish craftsmen and merchants to Jewish refugees and fighters.

Soldier in Art: Arthur Szyk” was created by Irvin Unger and Richard Friedman and directed by Jim Ruxin.